David Grantz has lived for 23 years in the Ouachita Mountains of eastern Oklahoma, where he and his wife Sharron are educators in a small, rural K-12 public school. David and Sharron have two teenaged children. David earned his BA in history, from Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas, USA; and his MA in English from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The series of essays in Qrisse's Poe Pages are extensive revisions of chapters from his Masters Thesis, which is entitled In a Strange City Lying Alone: The Theme of Perversity in Selected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. One day the author plans to publish his collected revisions into a scholarly volume. Click here to email David Grantz.
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In his "The Philosophy of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe chose what he considered the loveliest of melancholy subjects, the loss of a beautiful woman. Despite other period pieces of similar "lovely" subject matter, Poe seems to have revisited this subject more often than his contemporaries, especially when one considers his relatively scant repertoire. Scholars debate about whether Poe diddled his readers in describing with such scientific precision in "The Philosophy..." how he planned and executed his renowned poem "The Raven." Rather than participate in that conundrum, this essay will approach Poe's art from a different tangent, endeavoring to disentangle one filament from the yarn spun in "The Philosophy of Composition," his "mournful remembrance" of love lost.
One cannot help being struck by the otherworldliness of Poe's male protagonists. But for all of their surreality, Poe's male characters are stolid compared to Poe's women, whose characterizations will constitute the primary focus of this essay. Much from this presentation may invite the raising of eyebrows, and well-intentioned howls of denial of the suppositions explored herein, for this piece, more than any presented thus in my series, peers into the psychological causes for Poe's portrayal of strikingly bizarre women in his poems and tales. Alas, psychology is an imprecise science at best. In addition, my tenets are much more likely to trouble those who follow Poe in blind reverence, as if genius cannot admit of deviancy, or even, of madness. But after half a life of considering Poe's genius, this essayist finds the weird treatment of his female characters far beyond the reaches of chivalry, even beyond the laudatory poses of the Petrarchan sonnet. Unlike the women of the sonneteers, the health of Poe's "heroines" is usually tenuous, reflective of the insecurity which Poe felt within his spirit, having lost many of the closest females of his own life to his stern avatar, death.
In Poe's life and works, love and death are indissolubly entwined, and serve both as the apotheosis of his science and the springboard for his horror. Some have posited that Poe was merely a marketer of Gothic horror borrowed from the German models popular during his time. But Poe himself put to rest this assessment when he proclaimed in the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque "that terror is not of Germany but of the soul." Thus, the pertinent issue in Poe becomes the origins for the terrors of the soul, specifically of his soul.
A serious reader of Poe should closely examine Poe's biography. Particularly useful is Arthur Hobson Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. On the other hand, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance by Kenneth Silverman takes a more speculative, psychological approach, and is thus, more controversial. Although Poe wrote his tales with the intent of marketing them, Poe's daemon evidences itself with remarkable regularity, especially that part of daemon which he himself named the spirit of perverseness. Because Poe is so closely associated with many of his narratives and poems, this study will commence with a brief sketch of his life, emphasizing the notable women from his biography, some to whom he developed fervent spiritual attachments. The subsequent sections of the essay will examine the women of several poems and tales, drawing specific biographical particulars which seem congruent with the selected works.
The Darkening of Prodigy
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809, of David Poe and Elizabeth Arnold, impoverished actors. David Poe, the less accomplished of the two in the theatre, drank heavily and eventually deserted his wife, leaving Elizabeth the task of supporting and rearing three young children. With the demands of her work in the theatre and of otherwise earning sustenance for her family, Elizabeth could hardly have provided adequate attention to the needs of her young children. Arthur Hobson Quinn also suggests that the lifestyle and demands of the Eliza's acting career may have contributed to young Edgar's insecurities. (50) Worse yet, Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis. Though Edgar was not quite three, so precocious a child must have carried with him, deeply imprinted, the waning figure and the coughing paroxysms of his mother. Some might say that a child approaching three years of age could hardly have remembered such details; yet psychologists of early childhood claim that the seat of personality is established by the age of three. If this be true, then what happens early on to a child is of vital importance to its development. One might argue that much can be overcome by subsequent events, that the need for nurturing could be met later. Perhaps. But let us now consider the next stage in the boy's development.
Edgar was then taken in, though not formally adopted, by John and Francis Allan, who were charmed by the young lad and spoiled him terribly. Edgar indeed acquired at this very early age mastership of his own will (just as the narrator of "William Wilson" had told it). John Allan was a self-righteous, Scotch immigrant who set about providing Edgar with the fine education that he himself had been denied. Francis was a slight, high-spirited woman, herself an adopted orphan, reputed to have been accident prone and subject to illnesses. When John Allan's business interests required relocating in London, (Summer, 1815) the Allans took Edgar to England with them where he first boarded with the Misses Dubourg, the family of a clerk of Allan and Ellis. Next, at ages eight and nine, Edgar boarded at the school of John Bransby, the Manor House School at Stoke Newington (called Dr. Bransby's Academy in "William Wilson"). Again, providing Edgar with what he resented having been denied, Allan allowed the boy what Dr. Bransby considered extravagant pocket money and was proud of his young prodigy's academic progress. Several letters attest to this pride. One November, 1819 letter to Allan's uncle calls Edgar "a verry [sic] fine Boy and a good scholar." (Quinn 79)
Nevertheless, John Allan's methods in child rearing left much to be desired. For example, though Edgar yearned to be close to the family, between the lad's tenures at boarding schools and the interposing hiates of paternal neglect, Edgar's destiny became little more than Allan's charitable Duty. Materially, the boy did not lack, but his more immediate needs--especially of the nurturing kind, were shuffled aside. Even this early in his life, denial of the closer attentions he sought from the Allans only served to reinforce his despondent and sulky disposition. Add to this the lad's growing awareness that John Allan had not admitted him to his family. Sadly, charitable duty would be all Edgar could expect.
In addition, Francis Allan, Fanny as she was called, though young Edgar's champion, was seldom available for him since he was often away at school. Fanny's illnesses and her own periodic absences, if anything, contributed to Edgar's insecurities. All of the the decisions of boarding and education were left to her husband, and Fanny's continual bouts with various maladies cannot have reassured Edgar against losing yet another parent. (Silverman 20) Still, Poe's stay in England served him later in his art, lessening the likelihood of provincialism, an element so common in American writers of his era and, too, contributing to his mental discipline through the rigors of classical studies. (Quinn 80)
On July 21, 1820, after the collapse of the tobacco market, the Allans returned to the United States. The Allans' financial straits dictated that Edgar live at home for his studies. He attended the academy of Joseph H. Clarke, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin; then with Clarke's successor, William Burke, an accomplished Latinist who advertised that his academy would "'prepare young gentlemen for obtaining honorable entrance in any University in the United States'" (Silverman 23). Edgar's gift for languages, especially Latin, made him the envy of his peers. He was described by classmates as "'eager for distinction'" and '"inclined to be imperious.'" (Silverman 24). He seemed determined to prevail in any competition, including boxing, running, leaping and swimming, one time saving young Thomas Ellis from drowning. (Quinn 82) Poe had also begun to write poems. According to Clarke, he composed enough of them to make a volume. Only one of these adolescent efforts survives, however. The poem entitled "Oh, Tempora! Oh, Mores!" disparages the character of a young man who works in a dry goods store, as well as the vulgar life of merchandising. (Silverman 24) If nothing else, the tone of "Oh, Tempora!..." reveals young Edgar's disdain for the business interests of his stepfather.
Poe likely suffered from the biases of aristocratic Richmond. Known as the orphaned son to actors, he was sometimes passed over for positions of leadership, though he excelled in most endeavors. Colonel John T.L. Preston attributes a "fierceness" in young Edgar to his determination to prove himself worthy. (Quinn 85) "In wanting to excel and to command, Edgar resembled many other orphans, in whom a feeling of nonexistence and the need to master changeable surroundings can produce a will for power." (Silverman 25) Poe explored this theme through the pranks of William Wilson, whose imperious behavior he drew, in part, from his own experience. Still, Poe was not entirely without admirers.
Rob Stanard was among these, and his introduction of Edgar to his mother reveals what Kenneth Silverman calls Poe's want to seek "motherly succor." (26) Thus it should not surprise that when Fanny Allan was unavailable, young Edgar sought out others--for one, Jane Craig Stanard, the thirty-year-old mother of his friend Rob. She bore striking resemblance both to his mother and to Fanny: she was ill. Jane Stanard once told her husband that she was incapable of exertion and that she suffered from a "'death-like sickness.'" (Silverman 26) We have little testimony as to what, exactly, she revealed to young Edgar about her diseased mind. However, the similarity between the dissolution of Mrs. Stanard, who died insane about a year after making Edgar's acquaintance, and that of Madeline in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is striking. Poe himself noted that Jane Stanard was the inspiration for his enduring poem, "To Helen," which early on, ties Poe's concept of classical beauty to his most beautiful of melancholy subjects.
John Allan complained during Edgar's sixteenth year that the youth was "'sulky and ill-tempered to the family,'" and that he "'possesses not a Spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him.'" This particularly galled Allan as he struggled to keep his House solvent, to ward off creditors, and to rise above constant legal tangles. (Silverman 26-27) And while Allan's fortunes took a marked turn for the better with the death of his benefactor Uncle William Galt, he would neither forget nor forgive Edgar's behavior towards him during his times of duress.
During this period Edgar is known to have been attracted to Elmira Royster, who remembers Poe as a quiet, beautiful boy, quite generous, with a good memory and "'strong prejudices,'" especially against "'anything coarse or unrefined.'" Elmira reveals that she became engaged to him, but that her father had intercepted Edgar's letters to her while he attended university. Not knowing of Edgar's letters until later, she married another man. (Quinn 91)
Edgar prevailed upon Mr. Allan to send him to the University of Virginia. He was younger by two years than most of the other students, yet he distinguished himself in his studies, just as he had done before. It seems that the University was Thomas Jefferson's experiment in democratic education, entrusting the students with more responsibility than they were prepared to handle. Some of the fights he witnessed caused Edgar to fear for his own safety. However, real trouble in a different guise brewed in Edgar's life. John Allan, perhaps to avenge Edgar's lack of appreciation for him, practiced parsimony in "supporting" Edgar while at the University. Reactively, Edgar borrowed and gambled recklessly, incurring debts reputed to have been between $2000. and $2500. (Silverman 31-32) Mr. Allan refused to pay his foster-son's debts, and thus, Edgar was forced to leave the University after but one year. He returned to Richmond, disgraced.
These are the rather general facts concerning Poe's first eighteen years. In summary, Poe was no waif who pined his youth away. He was known to be athletic; he swam and ran fast enough to make him the envy of his peers. He could engage in lively conversation, though his general demeanor of sad reflection was already established. He excelled in his studies through his ambition and tenacious memory. Though he was admired by his comrades, he seemed without close friends. One can see that Edgar's loneliness began to crystallize early in his youth, and this was assuredly not without its causes. The hole in his life caused by the death of his mother had not been patched. If anything, his life with the Allans had made matters worse. Set up in hope as Edgar Allan in London, his appellation became Edgar Poe upon his return to Virginia. The feeling of belonging for which he yearned, was denied him. As do many assertive teens, Edgar began to live in reaction rather than action. To him, his step-father came to represent broken trust. Finally, after his altercation with Mr. Allan concerning the gambling debts, Edgar left home in despondency, intending to forge his own destiny.
Alone on a Wide Wide Sea!
Poe first went to Boston, perhaps hoping to learn something of his early youth, or of his mother. There he published his first book of poems, entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems. Even these early poems employed throughout, the theme of escape to, or by means of dreams. In "Tamerlane," young Edgar decried a plight similar to his own; "an orphanlike figure of uncertain parentage, with a 'feigned name,' the Byronic Tamerlane suffers indignity, but his belief in his own genius (as Poe's own belief in his destiny to become a writer) would be unvanquished even when facing death. (Silverman 39-40) Soon afterwards, Poe enlisted in the army under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He rose quickly to the rank of sergeant-major. At about this time (1829), Poe published his unheralded second edition of poems--Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. Also, he wrote a repenting letter to Mr. Allan, which temporarily patched relations with his foster father. But tragedy struck with the death Mrs. Allan of consumption, a more descriptive name for tuberculosis. Though Fanny Allan's death ameliorated for a time his conflict with Mr. Allan, the death of his beloved step-mother reinforced the morbid consistency of Edgar's mind.
Mr. Allan then aided Edgar in securing a commission at West Point. But he would not support him while he awaited the appointment. In sending Poe to West Point, Allan intended to instill discipline in Edgar and to rid himself of the lad's expense, since cadets at West Point earned a salary. Poe seems to have distinguished himself in his study of French and Mathematics while performing admirably his duties as a cadet. However, news from Richmond profoundly affected him. In the fall of 1830, Mr. Allan married Louisa Gabriella Patterson, who provided him an heir. Allan now had no further need of Edgar, and at the first opportunity, following "unpardonable" comments made by Edgar to his substitute Sergeant "Bully" Graves, insinuating that John Allan was but a drunken scrivener in his regard, Allan broke off communication entirely. (Silverman 63)
Again reacting to Allan, Edgar resolved, at this, to leave West Point; he got himself court-marshalled for neglect of duties. His last visit home was anything but conciliatory. The new Mrs. Allan had little use for Edgar, and Mr. Allan had secured his heir. Edgar, stripped of his long-waning hopes for an inheritance, left the Allans, never again to return--except in his mind. Readers of Poe have John Allan to thank for providing his step-son with more than adequate grist for composing tales of revenge. Perhaps his psychic crimes enacted against Allan constitute the horrors which the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse," who poisons his benefactor, must confess to the police. But as far as we know, Poe did not perpetrate crimes outwardly against other people; rather, his were transgressions of psyche--crimes committed within himself.
Before Poe left West Point, he persuaded 131 cadets to finance the publication of Poems, a revised edition. (Silverman 67) Like the previous edition, the new edition, published in 1831 in New York, was ignored by critics. Among the poems in this edition can be found "The City in the Sea," "Israfel," and an improved "To Helen" and "To Science," as well as a letter delineating the underlying premises that Poe would eventually pen in "The Poetic Principle." (Quinn 175) During this stage of his life, Poe lived in New York, but his sad state of finances caused him to seek residence with his aunt, Maria Clemm, sister to his father, who resided in Baltimore. Her husband William Clemm had died, leaving her with nothing but a mortgaged piece of property, but with a household to support with her meager skills. Poe thus joined the household of Maria Clemm, which consisted of her seventy-five-year-old paralyzed mother, her thirteen-year-old son Henry, and Virginia, aged eight years, living "in the mysterious manner in which individuals who cannot take care of themselves, if alone, manage to survive when joined in a group." (Quinn 186) There Edgar Poe turned to story writing, entering a short story contest in 1831. The contest, sponsored by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, did not name him a winner, however. In 1833, Poe entered another story contest, this one held by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor. This time he won the prize for "Manuscript Found in a Bottle" and was fortunate enough to befriend one of the contest's judges, lawyer and novelist John P. Kennedy.
Kennedy found his new friend in such dire financial straits that Edgar had been forced to refuse Kennedy's dinner invitation for lack of suitable clothing. The wealthy lawyer obtained a new set of clothes for Edgar, and secured for his friend an assistant editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger. Edgar became thus enabled to publish some of his own writings (i.e. "Berenice," Morella," "Lionizing," and "Hans Pfaall, a Tale" and two installments of a sea adventure, A. Gordon Pym), and was, as a matter of duty, expected to review books. The Messenger did quite well under his tutelage, its circulation increasing from five hundred to thirty-five hundred; however, the periodical's publisher, Thomas W, White abhorred Poe's intemperance with drink, resented his success, and finally, dismissed him in January, 1837. Kennedy, himself an admirer of Poe's genius, in a retrospective composed after Poe's death, regretted that as an editor he had been "irregular, eccentric, and querulous" in his several stints with publishers. (Quinn 208)
Marriage with Virginia
Poe again removed to New York where he searched for another editorship. He found none. By now he had a household to sustain. In May of 1936, Poe married his cousin Virginia, who was a few days shy of fourteen years of age. For the next two years, Poe attempted to support his family through freelance writing, first in Philadelphia, then in New York. His attempts were mostly in vain, however, as he experienced difficulties even in placing his writings. An exception was the publication of the entirety of Pym, which was maligned for the unlikelihood of its events. Reviewers in both England and The United States had misinterpreted the story as a work of non-fiction. It would not be the last time that Poe's work would be grossly misunderstood. In addition, Poe "sold 'The Mystery of Marie Roget,' 'The Pit and the Pendulum,' 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' and 'The Black Cat' for paltry sums to second-rate magazines." (Asselineau 42) In the meanwhile, Mrs. Clemm kept a boarding house to promote the welfare of the family.
Having found no steady employment in New York, Poe moved his family to Philadelphia where he secured an assistant editorship of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1839. Though Poe published some of his finest fiction in Burton's ("William Wilson," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "Ligeia"), he and owner Burton quarreled over editorial policies. Poe lost his job after only a year's tenure. In 1840, Poe published in Philadelphia a two-volume edition entitled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Though critically acclaimed, the volumes sold very slowly. However, Poe was soon again employed, this time by Graham's Magazine where, in April, 1841, he became editor. At Graham's, he published at the apex of his narrative voice "Eleonora," "The Man of the Crowd," and "The Masque of the Red Death." This time the decision to resign his editorship seems to have been on better terms with the manager George Graham. Poe may have chafed at what he considered less compensation than he deserved for his contributions in increasing subscriptions to Graham's to some 40,000. Whether driven more by ambition or by envy of George Graham's material success, Poe's primary motive in leaving his post was that he aspired to enjoy the benefits derived from publishing his own magazine. (Quinn 345)
Again, and this time for two years, Poe attempted to support his family through freelance writing, first in Philadelphia, then in New York. Often in his letters he expressed his ambition to initiate his publishing project The Stylus. He endeavored in vain, however, as he again experienced frustration in placing his writings. "He sold "The Mystery of Marie Roget," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Black Cat" for little gain. One can only imagine the discouragement that Poe must have felt at the height of his creative abilities, still unable even to provide adequately for his family. The prophetic "Tamerlane" from the poem of his youth seemed to be crystallizing into his design. Yet it was during this period that Poe met Charles Dickens, who admired him enough to attempt (unsuccessfully) to have published an edition of Poe's works in England. Upon his second visit to the United States, Dickens called upon Mrs. Clemm and contributed to her support. (Quinn 367)
An Elusive Dream: The Stylus
What strikes some critics as an oddity occurred during a visit which Poe made to Washington D.C. to enlist the support of friends, and perhaps even the President, for The Stylus. Early in 1843 he had befriended Thomas C. Clarke, publisher of the Philadelphia Saturday Museum, who would provide financial backing for the magazine. Soon a prospectus for the venture was issued, which promised a periodical of the finest artwork and writing. (Silverman 191) Poe would venture to Washington to find subscribers, seek government patronage, and to secure a post at the Philadelphia Custom House. Clarke defrayed some of his expenses. But then, when Poe seemed on the brink of achieving his goals (in the words of Washington journalist and poet Jesse Dow), he "became over-persuaded to take some Port wine." (Silverman 192) On the third day he became "unreliable." This was just what Poe did not need to appear in the times so important for his proposed venture. His behavior offended his friends and his potential supporters. Clarke, too, eventually dissolved his association with Poe, though financial considerations, rather than Poe's behavior, may have been primary in his decision.
Poe also became acquainted with James Russell Lowell through the Pioneer, Lowell's abortive attempt to profit in publishing a periodical. Poe sent him "The Tell-Tale Heart," which Lowell published in the Pioneer's first issue. Lowell's venture soon folded, with Lowell fearing that he would soon lose his sight. Poe was not to meet Lowell in person until 1845. 1843 also saw the publication by William H. Graham The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe. Only one volume of this serial was issued, containing "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Man That Was Used Up." (Quinn 398-99) In April of 1844, Godey's published "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," a narrative which constitutes a singular hybrid of the dreamer, morphine dosed, dreaming of his own reincarnation.
For reasons not clearly delineated, Poe quit his residence in Philadelphia to return to New York, the city which had offered him little previously. At first, he found small reception for his tales, but did manage to place "The Oblong Box," "Thou Art the Man," The Premature Burial," and "Mesmeric Revelation" during 1844, and "The Purloined Letter" in 1845. Also, early in 1845, Poe contributed "The Raven" to the Evening Mirror (his employer), which issued it on January 29, 1845, then to the American Review at approximately the same time. (Quinn 438) Though the poem met with world-wide acclaim, because of his day's lack of adequate copyright protection, Poe pocketed only small change for his now-legendary poem. In July of the same year there was issued another volume of his tales, followed three months later by a fresh edition of his poems, this time entitled The Raven and Other Poems. Poe also left the Mirror when he secured an editorship of The Broadway Journal, which folded early in 1846 for want of capital, but not until Poe had given the magazine over to posterity by publishing within its covers six new stories, including "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," "The Power of Words," and most revealing, "The Imp of Perverse."
It was also in March,1845 that he met Mrs. Francis Sergeant Osgood (Fanny), estranged wife of painter Samuel S. Osgood. She was also a contributor to Graham's Magazine, as was Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet. The two ladies feuded, lobbing literary grenades at one another, both hoping to win Poe's affections. Poe enjoyed the company of Fanny, and, though chivalrous and polite to Mrs. Ellet, distrusted her. In her regard, Poe's suspicions proved astute, for Mrs. Ellet, and later Jane Locke, later caused Poe to know the weight of the misery that could be wrought by women spurned.
No Balm in Gilead
After the failure of the Journal, Poe continued to place stories, most notably "The Cask of Amontillado" in Godey's and "The Philosophy of Composition" in Graham's Magazine; nevertheless, Poe's life fell incrementally into a shambles. Practically every day, by this time, he marked the decline of his treasured wife. During the winter of 1846-47, Poe was so poor that he could not even afford to heat the room of the waning Virginia, whose health had wildly oscillated from the time in 1842 that her lungs homorhaged while she was singing. During times in which her condition recurred, Poe drowned his dark fears in drink. George Graham remembers his love for Virginia as "a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty which he felt was fading before his eyes." Graham also remembers this connection of spirit as so close that a small cough from Virginia would send a shudder through the frame of her beloved. (Quinn 348) Poe told George Eveleth , a young medical student in Maine, that the agonies of Virginia, her recurring intervals of recovery and breakdown, had made him insane. Of his drinking Poe reported, "'God only knows how often or how much.'" (Silverman 334) Virginia died on January 30, 1847, of tuberculosis, complicated by other conditions.
Poe's life entered the final convolutions of maelstrom after Virginia's death. He had loved Virginia as though she had been an angel from one of his poems. His love for her, it is now believed, may have been primarily, if not altogether, spiritual. A reader might wonder, even, if Poe had become sexually impotent by early adulthood as a result of his life's trauma. Daniel Hoffman states that Poe's virility, or lack thereof, is none of our business, and his contention is well-taken for the respect it affords any person's private life. However, if Poe was indeed impotent, then one could do worse than consider the effects and causes of his psycho-physical condition, especially when one analyzes his spiritual orientation for the passions of the characters in his tales. In fact, Hoffman himself employs Marie Bonaparte's explanations of Poe's loss of vitality as illustrated by the symbology of the spiral entry into the catacombs in "The Cask of Amontillado." Indeed, after examining Poe's idealized, waning women, how can one ignore the lack of carnal dimension? Also, Poe's perceptions align with his estrangement from corporeality and in Eureka, placing his faith in dreams as the only realities. Perhaps we may best construe this estrangement by reading his most confessional poem.
What a plain and open revelation is this! Poe describes his own condition of loneliness. From childhood, his perceptions differed from those of the people he encountered in his waking world. His was a deviant mind, and his soul, ever lost in mystery, was possessed of demons; even elements of nature assumed their form. He confides his inability to focus his own passions, an "arrested development" (Altruda) of the child. "In the world of "sweets and sours" Poe's love did not represent to himself a complete love, for he was consigned to love alone. Edgar conducts in many of his tales and poems a symbolic search to conjoin with what his heart tells him that he lacks.
The Final Years
When Virginia was taken from him, Edgar fell apart, for she, like Roderick Usher's Madeline, represented his only reason for continuing, the electrical force which restrained his collapse. And collapse he did. Slowly, Poe regained his health with the charitable assistance of Marie Louise Shew, a practical woman with some degree of medical training, who believed him to suffer from a lesion of the brain. Yet he gradually gained ground, though his soul pined after Virginia. Poe's "Annabel Lee," is believed to be Poe's lament for his beloved Virginia. Though Poe lived for nearly three years after Virginia's death, his existence seems a desperate and tortured one; for he could never entirely escape from the image of his dying love.
From the time of Virginia's death until the time of his own, Poe's mind served as a cyclotron in which his creative and destructive impulses pulled him to pieces. It would be an understatement to say that Poe's final epoch was gyratory, even, at times, desperate. On the one hand, Poe seemed determined to fill the spiritual vacuum created at the death of Virginia. On the other hand, Poe recoiled from the very attentions that he needed, as if his psyche had crystalized into its caste. Loui Shew, herself a devout Episcopalian, having assisted in Poe's physical recovery, attempted to minister to his spirit. She reported Poe's flight from her side during a service in which the "priest several time repeated the text, 'He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.'" (Silverman 333) After this, Poe seems to have disassociated himself from Shew's salves for his spirit. Nevertheless, he gradually recovered somewhat from the physical and spiritual shock of Virginia's passing. In December of 1848, the American Review published "Ulalume," a finely wrought, though stark poem portraying the inevitable progression of souls to the grave. Yet its final stanza suggests that other souls, lunary souls, traverse the same path. Poe had hinted before his belief in a cosmic dance in which humans share a destiny with that of all bodies. And by this time, Poe's grandest work, his Eureka was coalescing in his revitalized imagination. Poe considered Eureka the culmination of his most intensely sought truths, in brief, his ultimate achievement. Unfortunately, the world of 1848 was ill-prepared to comprehend it.
Although Eureka has been treated in a previous essay, it would leave a vast hole in Poe's biography not to mention it here. More than any other of his works, Eureka reveals the germ of the "great secret" for which Poe strove in his stories. It delivers what Poe promised it would--a comprehensive description of the physical and spiritual universe and the beings which populate this expanse. But for Poe, Eureka binds the spiritual and the physical into a sentient unity, the best cipher for the riddle of Death that a lifetime of suffering could produce. It was imperative to Poe that he defeat this nemesis Death, that he seek his Eldorado, that he satisfy his own thirst for what he had lost. As a result, Eureka has been misunderstood from the onset. During Poe's time it was called pantheistic; during our own time, solipsistic. Suffice it to say that Eureka was one of the most penetrating glimpses into our universe which has ever been attempted, and that, too, it constitutes a unique opportunity for Poe scholars to experience the manufacture of a pearl of the psyche.
A young theology student, John Henry Hopkins, who disparaged Poe's Eureka as blasphemous, encouraged Shrew to resign Poe to his fate. Though she had had nursed Virginia during her last weeks and had helped him regain his strength after Virginia's death, Shew advised Poe that his spiritual renewal, indeed his survival, hinged on his finding "a woman fond and strong enough to manage his affairs in his best interest," (Silverman 344) an implicit suggestion by Ms. Shew that Poe's choices were often made at his own peril, and thus, perverse. Poe was deeply grieved by Shew's withdrawal of her attentions, and agreed that "'unless some true and tender and pure womanly love saves me, I shall hardly last a year longer, alone." (Silverman) Like his character Roderick, Poe seems to have depended upon a female spiritual counterpart. Yet Poe was also keenly aware of the poverty of his own household. His correspondence with Mrs. Clemm during 1848 reflects re-marriage as a practicality, in contradistinction to the spiritual urgency of Poe's letters to the four women with whom he became involved during his last years.
Poe developed at least a curiosity concerning Jane Locke, a lesser poet and an admirer of Poe, who lived in Lowell, Massachusetts. However, she failed to mention to him that she was married to John G. Locke, a respected attorney, and another small ancilla--that she was mother of five children. Poe then arranged his card to spend time at the Richmonds, neighbors to whom Jane Locke hand introduced him. There he met Nancy Richmond, the twenty-eight-year-old wife of a successful paper manufacturer "and mother of a three-year-old girl." (Silverman 346) Ms. Richmond also took an interest in Poe, describing him as "unlike any other person, I had ever known, that I could not think of him in the same way--he was incomparable--not to be measured by any ordinary standard." (Silverman) In the Richmond household Poe found audience for recitation of his unfortunate past. Bardwell Richmond, Nancy's brother, was struck by Poe's account of the brotherly/sisterly affection in his and Virginia's relationship. Bardwell thought such a relationship unusual as a basis for matrimony.
In addition, Poe cultivated a third romantic involvement, this with Sarah Helen Whitman, herself a poet, critic, literary aficionado, Emersonian transcendentalist and occultist. She had developed a fascination with Poe's works, heightened by salon leader/friend Anne Lynch's descriptions of the "'electrifying' effect of his recitation. (Silverman 348) Finally, Helen managed to attract Poe's attention by saluting him in her poem "To Edgar Allan Poe," which Anne Lynch sent to him before its publication in the Home Journal. Upon receipt of the manuscript and subsequent publication of the poem, Poe began to seek information concerning his admirer.(Quinn 574) In response, Poe penned his second "To Helen," a lengthy and comparatively prosaic effort which fastens upon the divine light of Helen's eyes. Poe likely alarmed Ms. Whitman with his intense fervor and his sudden request of marriage in mid-September of 1848. She apparently put off his advances, citing her own frail health. She said to Poe, "had I youth and health and beauty I would live for you and die with you. Now were I to allow myself to love you, I could only enjoy a bright brief hour of rapture and die." (Quinn 576) Poe responded that he would "willingly--oh, joyfully--joyfully--joyfully--go down with you into the night of the Grave." (Quinn 577)
Yet the events of Poe's late-Fall sojourn in Providence seem nothing short of bizarre. Upon arriving, Poe attempted suicide by ingesting opium, then appeared at Ms. Whitman's door three days late, with no written explanation. At first, she refused to see him. Poe must have persuaded her that he had been ill, for they were soon again in cahoots. Beyond Ms. Whitman's initial postponement of marriage were facts of which Poe only gradually became aware. She depended upon a stern mother, Ms. Nicolas Power, for her material support, and because of Poe's reputation, Ms. Power was intransigent in her refusal to sanction her daughter's betrothal to Poe. Even as the two moved closer to announcing their intentions of marriage, by late November, Poe sensed that destiny had already prevented its consummation, for his fiend Intemperance could not be quelled as he had agreed it must. In fact, the entire engagement would be built in the conditional tense. Poe would not be allowed to benefit financially by the marriage, for Ms. Power had documents drawn up which disinherited her daughter. And Poe must not drink. Yet on December 20th after a lecture on the "Poetic Principle," Poe "fell in with a group of young men who persuaded him to drink." (Quinn 583) Then on December 22nd, or thereabouts, Poe appeared at the Whitman residence intoxicated. More news of Poe's indiscretions came to light, and painfully, Ms. Whitman came to the knowledge that that marriage to Edgar would be a mistake. Despite the announcement of the wedding in the press, the relationship ended with both parties still expressing mutual affection. Poe's reputation and his inability to refrain from drink perversely conjoined to ruin the most auspicious of his hopes. His behavior reflects a divided will once again reminiscent of his narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse." Even as he courted Ms. Whitman, his judging spectre thwarted the forays which would have fulfilled his own deepest needs.
After the end of his affair with Ms. Whitman, Poe composed a short story "Hop Frog," in which a dwarfed and crippled court jester with a weakness for wine successfully plots revenge against the king and his ministers, who had been forcing Hop-Frog to drink, and who had insulted his girlfriend Trippetta. A reader can see much of Poe's suffering reflected in Hop-Frog. He had begun to exhibit a paranoia that people were out to make of him the fool, much like the fool Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado." Like Hop-Frog, Poe felt helpless before the powers looming above him. In the disfigured Hop-Frog, Poe's own sense of helplessness in the face of the iron rails of circumstance reflects the desperation that he was feeling in his poisoned relationship with Ms. Whitman. In his own mind, he wished to set Ms. Powers and her ministers (the Lockes and Mrs. Ellet) on fire, and to make his escape, his last jest, with the also-dwarfed Sarah Helen in tow.
Meanwhile, Poe had been writing to Nancy Richmond (He called her Annie.) during his courtship of Sarah Helen Whitman. His importunate and heartfelt correspondence with Annie would suggest that he loved her with accustomed spiritual fervor. One wonders how Poe's approach might have differed had Annie not been married. It is interesting that Poe addressed Annie as friend and sister. With Virginia too, Poe had become accustomed to loving one whom he regarded as a sister. Perhaps he merely endeavored to assume the role with which he had become familiar. Also, since Annie was married, his intentions would need to appear Platonic.
Throughout his "affair" with Annie, Poe feared the interference of Jane Locke, who displayed the characteristics one sometimes finds in spurned women. Though she was not entirely successful in bending the ear of Mr. Richmond, her warnings at least seemed to awaken in Mr. Richmond the realization of the impropriety of Poe's advances towards his wife. Poe's letters to Annie reveal his turmoil for the damage done him by the Lockes, and his regrets for appearances which might have distressed the Richmonds. He paid his final visit to Lowell in early June, planning next to travel to Richmond. By then, Poe was increasingly dubious about his health, wondering if he could survive the journey.
One cannot help being struck by the self-destructive portent of Poe's psyche. Certainly, Poe's propensity to perversity can be witnessed even early in his life. But as Poe approached Death, his choices reveal an ever-widening fissure in what had been a very proud and defiantly rational mind. Contraries abound. For example, he attempted suicide while courting the lady he claimed to love. He accused his enemies of slandering him, then affirmed their stories by continuing to drink. He procrastinated the enlistment of subscribers to his best hope for financial independence, the Stylus. Finally, he had become so paranoid that on his stopover in Philadelphia, he told John Sartain, editor of the Union Magazine that two men on the train were trying to kill him. Sartain described him as "suffering from a mania of persecution." (Quinn 616)
By the time he reached Richmond on July 14, Poe was in bad shape. He lodged at the Swan Tavern, where he gradually regained his strength. With the attentions of old friends and the passing of time, his health improved to the extent that he began once again to lecture to enthusiastic audiences. He even visited several times Sarah Elmira Royster, his teenage sweetheart, and proposed marriage. She finally took his request seriously and asked for time to consider his request. Poe told Ms. Royster that he would return to Richmond after he had concluded some business in New York, but also told her of "'a presentiment [that] he never should see me any more.'" (Quinn 629) Generally, the Richmond visit had gone well, and Poe seemed on the mend when he took an October 4th boat for Baltimore.
The Iron Bells
Even until the end of his life, Poe had entertained ambitions of marriage and of commercial success; yet, as he had with Elmira, Poe had begun to intone to those closest to him a prescience that the end was near. He had asked for Ms. Clemm to request that Rufus Griswold serve as his literary executor. He had written in letter to Mrs. Clemm that he had no desire to live, having completed his Eureka. (Asselineau 42) Finally, in Baltimore, under mysterious circumstances, he was found, lying unconscious on a bench near a wharf. He was taken to a Baltimore hospital. "When his consciousness returned, the horror and misery of his condition, combined with the effects of exposure, produced such a shock to the nervous system that he never recovered." (Ingram 428) There is not, and likely will never be, sufficient evidence to document the events which led to Poe's miserable death. Upon examining his behavior since the death of Virginia, many critics consider it likely that he again found his way to drink, which had become increasingly a poison to him, even in small quantities. And the wharf area where he was found provided ample opportunity for him to indulge. Still, we cannot know for certain, which leaves the field open to rabid (literally!) speculation. On Saturday, Poe called out from a fever dream for Reynolds, perhaps Jeremiah Reynolds, projector of voyages to the South Seas. Did Poe dream of Pym aboard the Grampus, traversing the South Pacific, to find the current which swept him towards that awful secret, the nature of being beyond the pale. Edgar Poe uttered a final prayer: "God help my poor soul!" then died on the seventh of October, 1849. The play was "The tragedy 'Man,'/And its hero the Conqueror Worm." (Poe 659)
Poe's death issues from the brazen lungs of an ebony clock a chord called inevitability. Again, as with Ms. Whitman, Poe could have probably won Elmira Royster's hand in marriage, for she still loved him. Instead, he plotted a course which in his mind would take him back to Virginia, back to Eliza--back, always back, to the unity of souls.
The Thunder-blasted Tree
As previously discoursed, Poe's favorite topic was lost love, the most beautiful, melancholy topic. He also exalted transcendence to the world of dreams. In transcending this world, Poe's sought lost love, his "mournful and never-ending remembrance." We discover in Poe's poems the same themes which occupy many of his tales, only with greater intensity of effect. We find the same ethereal women, with their sublime voices, the music of harps and lutes, links with classical beauty. But descriptions seem too general to fully convey the characteristics which I wish to impute. Let us take, for example, the following:
One of Poe's better poems, "To One in Paradise" is addressed to a lost love. The speaker's "light of Life" has been taken from him. Pity him! If we are familiar with Poe's own life, how can one help but pity him? "Thou wast that all to me, love,/ For which my soul did pine..." And now you are gone; I have nothing to live for. Does this sound corny! But here we have it within a poem replete with dynamic imagery concerning what lost love is all about. The speaker's soul pines after his love; for he has lost not just his heart, but his mind as well. He lives in a trance because his soul longs to rejoin with that of his love in paradise. With Poe one is often tempted to exchange the poet with the speaker of the poem. Suffice it for me to extend a previous observation; Poe himself is the hero of his own imagination; therefore, because he so strongly identifies with his narrators and speakers, often we may substitute Poe for them and not go far wrong. Poe, like the speaker in this poem, saw love and death as two faces of the same event. This should come as no great surprise since many of most important the women in Poe's life perished. No more "Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,/ Or the stricken eagle soar!"
Within the Distant Aidenn
A Poe story which fuses the themes of transcendence and lost love is "Ligeia," Poe's own favorite of his tales. The story's narrator marries a woman of exquisite beauty--a woman named Ligeia. To the narrator (and to Poe, naturally), she is the perfect woman, for she possesses classical beauty, expanded intellect, and spiritual purity. He makes Ligeia his wife. The narrator describes at length the strange attributes of his bride--her raven-black, luxuriant hair; her low, musical voice; her ivory skin, lofty forehead; her delicate nose and radiant smile. However, Ligeia's most striking feature are her black, mysterious eyes, which kindled in the narrator an inscrutable sentiment which would not admit of analysis. "In 'Ligeia' it is the lady's eyes which represent, to her husband, the total knowledge embodied in her person." (Hoffman 228)
Ligeia's knowledge exceeds that of anyone whom the narrator has met.
The acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding; yet I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with childlike confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the early years of our marriage. With how vast a triumph--with how vivid a delight...did I feel...that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to a goal of wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden. (Poe Modern Library ed., 657)
But Ligeia grows ill. Even her intense passion for life could not save her from the Conqueror Worm. Her last words were shrieked in despair: "Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will." (659) By this time, the reader has already witnessed in the story foreshadowing that Ligeia's is more than just a feeble will. "And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness...." (656) But Ligeia dies anyway, at least apparently.
The bereaved narrator turns increasingly to opium to relieve his suffering. He moves away from his estate on the Rhine and settles in an abbey "in one of the least frequented portions of fair England." (660) The abbey's exterior is left in its state of decay. But the narrator elaborately refurbishes the interior to befit the dream-haunted interior of his own brain. Much like the House of Usher, the narrator's abbey conveys a mood of gloom. The gloomiest room of all is the bridal chamber, which the narrator decorates for his successor to "Ligeia--the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine." (661) That room, with its ebony furniture, with its leaden-glass window which causes the light of the sun or moon to cast a fantastic luster over the room's interior, with its arabesque tapestries made into curtains, carpet and upholstery, reflect anything but what one would expect to find in a bridal chamber. The universal application of the tapestries, the lofty heights of the chamber and its pentagonal shape, bring to mind an oversized, elaborately bedecked casket, set on its end. The crazed narrator, perhaps without fully realizing it, has set the properties of the bridal chamber to enact the murder of Rowena.
The narrator loathes his new bride, for she does not possess the attributes of his never-forgotten Ligeia. His violent humor estranges Rowena; she cannot love him. But in the second month of their marriage, Rowena develops a chronic malady which defies identification by her physicians. She becomes more excitable as she declines, hearing rustling sounds which appear to the narrator to be merely natural occurrences. Eventually the narrator, too, becomes aware of the strange circumstances surrounding Rowena. He sees "a shadow--a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect--such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade." (662-63) He feels some invisible object pass lightly over his body. These fantasies come to the narrator as he reels from an immoderate dose of opium; but as we know, dreams in Poe, no matter how lurid, constitute a higher reality. Next, the narrator hears footsteps upon the carpet; also he witnesses "three or four large drops of ruby colored fluid" (663) drop from the atmosphere into Rowena's glass of wine.
After this, Rowena's welfare takes a decided turn for the worse, and she soon dies. Next day she will be buried. But for a night the narrator must sit with the corpse, or he thinks he must. As he sits there dreaming of his lost Ligeia, he notices that the body stirs. He goes to the bed and notices some signs of life in the corpse, which diminish until the body once again assumes the torpor of the dead. Then the narrator returns to reminiscing on Ligeia. These events are repeated through the night, but each time that the life wells within the body of Rowena, it assumes greater vitality, until that horrible last time when the body gets out of the bed and walks over to the narrator. When the bandages fall from around Rowena's face, the narrator witnesses not the face of Rowena, but the visage of the lost Ligeia, with her black tresses and wild eyes. Have the united wills of the narrator and Ligeia murdered Rowena and incarnated Ligeia into her body?
Ligeia presents critics a challenging story to discuss, for Poe so arranges the story's events that they occur only in the narrator's dreams. Of course, that was Poe's intention; "Ligeia" is a tale of the imagination. Like "To One in Paradise," it expresses the longings of a lover for reunion with the beloved, as well as the horrors attendant for the lover whose longings are fulfilled. It is important that the narrator of "Ligeia" recovers his lost love only in the world of dreams; however, the dreams themselves represent a reality of unconscious mind, and thus, are no less valid to Poe than had a different set of events transpired in the light of waking consciousness.
This dark undercurrent of many of his tales led Richard Wilbur to declare that Poe's prototypical plot involves "the effort of the poetic soul to escape all consciousness of the world in dream." (103) But why must it do this? According to Wilbur, Poe sees the poetic soul at war with the physical world. The poetic soul seeks reunion with God, a return to grace, which it lost when man exalted "scientific reason above poetic intuition." (101) Poe believed the human soul to be diseased, Earth's woods, fields and waters no longer expressive of God's imagination. In this, Poe echoes a common complaint of the Romantics in the face of a menacing, mechanistic world view. During the prior incarnation and in childhood the soul enjoys "a serene unity of being"; however, entrance into the adult life engages the poet with a tainted world "in which the physical, the factual, the rational, the prosaic are not escapable." The compromised soul then splits, one side still longing for reunion with its divine nature, the other hungering for the outward world of external objects. Thus the soul seeks escape from the earthly self to which it is bound, that is the source of suffering. (102) When one marries Poe's unfortunate destiny with this view, one can see why escape to the world of dreams serves him so well, both in his own life, and in the lives of many of his narrators. Furthermore, one can see how a character like Ligeia could be born from his psyche.
Ligeia, because of her context within the unconscious mind, represents more than just a personality. She also represents the very knowledge which the story's narrator seeks, perhaps the knowledge which Poe intuited must lie beyond the brink of death. Hoffman points out that her name rhymes with "idea." (247) The reader also learns that her eyes were the chief fascination of her countenance, the classically denoted windows to the soul. Also, the narrator claims to have never learned her maiden name, which seems highly unlikely, as does his contention that he cannot remember when they met. This evidence reinforces the effect of unreality in the story. In fact, Ligeia seems not so much a person any more; for she, like the teeth of Berenice, represents the realm of ideas. But her knowledge will not be spoken. Like the book which will not permit itself to be read in "The Man of the Crowd," Ligeia is doomed to die without disclosing the forbidden knowledge. Nevertheless, the narrator has no choice but to seek after her while he remains encased in his mortal shell; yet he can never access Ligeia's mind, for he has lost his own. Thus, the manifestations produced by the narrator's pursuit of his beloved, which appear to others as perverse impulses, are but his own desperate efforts to overcome despair and to maintain sanity. How closely this narrator mirrors the pattern of Poe's own existence! In his own life, he created in the females he loved a sublime hallucination which might, he hoped, restore the security he lost when Eliza was taken from him and which resonated in the deaths of Francis, of Jane Craig Stannard, and of Virginia. Yet Poe also knew crass women. In his own imagination he could afford to sacrifice one of them to borrow her body. And what is this that sane people call crime but humanity's imps in pursuit of their own vitality? Yet would Poe have us focus upon the murder? Or upon something else?
One also wonders what in Rowena might have been so odious that she could be sacrificed. Her offenses, like those of Fortunato, are unnamed. Blue eyes and fair hair seem insufficient cause, though those features do set her apart from Poe's other women. Could Rowena represent to Poe the sensual side of love, the side which betrays the dream of Eliza and the ideality of the poet? Is she a woman like Jane Locke, who hunts Poe down, to learn his awful secrets, the ones he would prefer to throw down only into grave?
Louis Broussard opts for an interpretation far more general. He claims that Poe was merely demonstrating that man's feeble will does not die, but is rejoined with the greater will of God. (93) This inevitable merging process, which Poe explored extensively in Eureka, reveals perversity as the agency of psyche which speeds us to reunion and subsequent rebirth.
Gravity pulls matter unto a reunion with the original unity. What "Ligeia" illustrates is not personal reincarnation, but reincarnation of the life process itself. Until the final dissolution the diffusion of matter continues. Man dies, and another is born to replace him. Life repeats itself, only to die again like Ligeia, whose weakness of will yields "to the angels," followed by Rowena, who in death resembles Ligeia because she, too, must yield. Death always wears the same face; hence the obvious relationship between the verses composed by Ligeia and the story which the narrator unfolds....The history of man as a narrative of recurrent death Poe condensed into one symbolic night. (Broussard 93)
Broussard's analysis seems alluring because it harmonizes with Poe's belief structure, yet it practically ignores the ruby-colored poison which Ligeia supposedly administers . Since the narrator witnesses everything through the haze of his opium fettered vision, one cannot rule out that it was he who administered the poison, and that the subsequent events were delusional or false. But Poe provides ample examples of strange happenings--the rustling tapestries, the footfall upon the carpet--to suggest that Ligeia is the murderer of Rowena. This thesis serves well as long as one ignores other clues that Poe provides that she is not a real person, but rather the intellect and spirituality of the narrator. If this be true, then he would have had to be Rowena's killer.
Roy P. Basler contends that the narrator did indeed poison Rowena, that he deliberately made a death chamber out of what should have been the bridal chamber in a maniacal attempt to reincarnate Ligeia. (58) Here we very well may have another of Poe's lunatic narrators making open confession of his crime. The three of four drops of red liquid constituted the poison which, rather than issuing forth from the atmosphere, were administered to Rowena by the narrator himself. He absolves himself almost successfully from having committed the atrocity by obscuring the actual facts with his supposed opium-fettered perception. In reality, the opiated narrator has murdered Rowena, who represents the flesh, so that he might again possess the spiritual being of Ligeia. The narrator of "Ligeia" seems akin to the judging Montressor, who attempts to obliterate Fortunato, the embodiment of the of the weaknesses of the flesh! Perhaps the multi-dimensional aspect of this story caused Poe to esteem it. The story bends the mind double. It is an incredible puzzle with plenty of grist for debate. One never gets to the bottom of it, which, doubtless, would delight Poe. Was it murder or was it reincarnation?
One can ask the same question of the actions of Roderick or of his twin sister Madeline in "The Fall of the House of Usher," who also portray an abnormally close spiritual bond. In fact, the destiny of the two appears indissoluble, as do the souls of Ligeia and her lover. When Madeline, presumed dead, is placed in her tomb, Roderick can find no peace. He does not sleep, but hears, or thinks he hears, the stirrings and struggles of Madeline within the burial vault. When Madeline returns and bears her brother "to the floor a corpse," (Poe 191) the house, emblematic of the psyche of Roderick, collapses into the dark tarn. The conclusions to the two stories point to the inseparable wills of the lovers to be rejoined, even if one of them must emerge from the grave to do accomplish the reunion.
How similar, too, are the occurrences in "Berenice," a story narrated by Egaeus, an erudite recluse, whose mother dies where he is born--in the family library. The story does not indicate whether Egaeus's birth caused his mother's death, but readers might assume so. The narrator then reveals his belief that he has had previous existences, evidencing "a remembrance of aerial forms--of spiritual and meaning eyes--of sounds musical yet sad--a remembrance which will not be excluded; a memory like a shadow, vague, variable, indefinite, unsteady; and like a shadow, too, in the impossibility of my getting rid of it while the sunlight of my reason shall exist." (Poe 171) He spends his youth absorbed in the books of the library, just as the narrator of "Ligeia" dwells within Ligeia's intellect. Egaeus remarks of an "inversion" which gradually took place in his mind, wherein what passes for reality among most mortals affected him "as visions, and as visions only, the wild ideas of the land of dreams..." (171-72) These dreams comprise the totality of his existence.
Next Egaeus introduces his cousin Berenice, whose beautiful, agile and energetic figure seem the opposite of her cloistered house mate, at least until she becomes ill with epilepsy. Her epilepsy "not unfrequently terminated in a trance itself--trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution, and from which her manner of recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt." (172) Accompanying her disease is a gradually wasting of her flesh. Coincident with the dissipation of Berenice occurs a bizarre attentiveness disorder in Egaeus, which he describes as a "nervous intensity of interest" in the contemplation of ordinary objects. He reports losing many hours watching the embers of a fire, the flame of a lamp, or a shadow falling upon a door or tapestry. In the meanwhile, in what he calls calls "an evil moment," Egaeus proposes marriage.
While Egaeus is entranced within his dream, his bride-to-be enters the inner sanctum of the library and stands before him. Yet her figure seems indistinct, wavering. "Insufferable anxiety," an icy chill, and consuming curiosity fills Egaeus's soul. He is appalled by the excessive emaciation of her body and her pale complexion, hollow temples, and dull, lifeless eyes. Her shrunken lips part into a smile, revealing her teeth, which Egaeus wishes that he had never seen, or that he had died first. This with good reason, for he is seized with a monomania regarding the teeth, whose image he can not banish from his thoughts. "The teeth!--the teeth!--they were here, and there, and every where, and visibly and writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development." (175) To his doom, the narrator assigns the teeth "a sensitive and sentient power, and even when unassisted by the lips, a capability of moral expression." (175) Finally, Egaeus associates them with the idiotic and perverse notion that ruined him--that the teeth were ideas. Peace could never be achieved until he owned the lady's teeth.
Shortly after Berenice quits the chamber, she appears to have died (Actually, she was in a trance); she will be buried at the setting of the sun. Near midnight the narrator finds himself again in his library, as if "newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream." (176) He becomes aware of vague fancies of horror, of the "piercing shriek of a female voice," then of a small box belonging to the family physician, on a lamp table; then of a marked section in a book opened a Latin poem by Ebn Zaiat, which foretold his deed, and which translated means, "Companions inform that I might lessen my misery by visiting my lover's grave." (176) A servant then taps at the chamber door, his looks "wild with terror."
The narrator notices that his own clothing is covered with mud and gore, and presently, the imprint of finger nails upon his hands and a spade leaning against the library wall. With that, he leaps to the table to open the small box, but drops and breaks it. Out of it tumbles instruments of dental surgery and the teeth of Berenice.
"Berenice" borrows heavily from the effects of "Ligeia." Both narrators have inverted their lives and reside within the world of dreams. Indeed they have lost the ability to discern reality as such. Thus one cannot rely upon them to report events accurately. By the time that Berenice enters the library and smiles the smile of Egaeus's doom, the narrator perceives her only as the shimmering figure within his dream. He loses himself in the reveries of terror, obsessed with the lady's teeth, just as the narrator of "Ligeia" loses himself in contemplation of his lost love as he watches over Rowena's corpse. Both stories climax in horror, and within the dreamscape of the narrators.
It is herein that Poe amazes with his insight into madness of psyche, and of the crimes wrought from that madness. Richard Wilbur's observations already cited apply well to "Ligeia" and to "Berenice," as the narrators of both stories retreat from the realities of the flesh into self-induced reveries, but at a very dear cost to the psyche. Egaeus reports that his feelings for Berenice were of the mind, not the heart, while Ligeia impresses the narrator with her vast intellect. Yet Egaeus calls his proposal of marriage to Berenice evil. Why?
The answer lies in Egaeus's lack of carnal dimension. He resembles many of the women in Poe, who often represent the ideas they possess rather than real women; they writhe as phantoms of dreams, or of dreams within dreams. He passes many of life's hours in reverie, much like Poe himself, who"dreamed away whole months" before awakening to "a sort of mania for composition." (Poe 23, The Portable Poe) Yet Poe realized that one cannot love but through the heart. How could he accomplish this without betraying his spiritual attachment to the spectre he had created to fill the space in his heart left empty by his mother?
Another tale, "Morella," expresses similar archetypal ideas regarding reincarnation. In that tale, the daughter of the beautiful, mysterious, and Ligeia-like Morella is born at the instant of Morella's death. The child is reared by the narrator, but oddly, he gives her no name until several years have elapsed. He decides to have the child christened. He whispers, perversely, in the holy man's ears that the child is to be called Morella, when the child collapses onto the family vault, proclaiming, "I am Here!" After the second Morella dies, the narrator finds the family grave empty when he lays the daughter to rest. With the incarnation of mother-in-child, Poe demonstrates again that the tendency is always to unity. Everything must be this way, or so Poe believed. Yet he may also be posing another vehicle for the re-entrance of his own mother, a fascination, or at least an idle hope, that the child-wife Virginia was growing into the place of the phantom-mother (Eliza) that he had created and nurtured within his psyche. Philip Van Doren Stern notes that Poe's phobias contribute to a narrowing of subject, that through
In "Eleonora," another "fancy me mad" narrator falls in love with his cousin Eleonora in an tropical paradise, "the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass." In this valley flowed "the River of Silence," a meandering stream whose currents possessed "a hushing influence." The valley is more than a little unusual, for it has never been trodden, and, according to the narrator, Eleonora and he know "nothing of the world without the valley." There they dwell with Eleonora's mother. Poe employs an extended metaphor in describing the flowers and foliage of the valley floor, which change emblematically as he and Eleonora move from the age of innocence, characterized by white daisies, purple violets, and ruby-colored asphodels; to the age of love, portrayed by the withering of the white daisies, which are replaced by a profusion of ruby asphodels and by a scarlet-plumed flamingo; and then, finally, to a life riven by the death of Eleonora, in which the dark-eyed violets predominate. Before Eleonora's dies, she extracts an oath from the narrator that even after her death, he will remain faithful through his remembrance of her. Eleonora pledges that if she is allowed to do so, she will revisit the narrator "visibly in the watches of the night." (Poe 516) Soon the reader discovers a new twist, for in this tale, the narrator again finds love in a woman named Ermengarde, but suffers the guilt engendered by the remembrance of Eleonora. In its poetic conclusion, a voice, presumably Eleonora's own, tells the narrator to "sleep in peace!--for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be make known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora." (Poe 517)
One might again marvel that these so-called Marriage-Group tales relate so closely to Poe's own inward struggles. Despite their fantastical character, the biographical particulars of "Eleonora" seem readily attributable, since Poe did indeed marry his cousin and live with her mother. The Valley of the Many-Colored Grass was projected by Poe's imagination onto Gwynn's Falls, a beautiful area near Baltimore, in which Edgar and Virginia played. (Benton 7) Indeed, Poe's life with Maria Clemm and Virginia not only maintained a semblance of stability in his life, but indeed was the nurturing oasis which he required. Later, when the "finger of Death" fell upon Virginia's bosom, Poe would be forced into "a condition of shadow and doubt" far more protracted and agonizing than he anticipated in "Eleonora." By the time he left the "Valley of the Many-Colored Grass," he had spent four years among the "dark-eyed violets," four years which witnessed painful oscillations between hope and despair, as his beloved Virginia waned. Poe would not find his Ermengarde, at least not in time to save himself.
"Eleonora" presents Poe's belief that lovers can expect reunion after death. Eleonora's blessing reflects a hope that his choices have not betrayed the one awaiting in Paradise. Still, one cannot help noticing that "Eleonora" has ended positively, the narrator having gained Eleonora's blessing to marry again, but more important, her forgiveness.
Penned just before Virginia's death, "Life in Death," renamed "The Oval Portrait," reveals Poe's torment during Virginia's last weeks. In that tale, a young bride of an obsessed artist poses for a portrait of uncanny lifelikeness; but in posing, the very life of the young girl just ripening into womanhood wanes in proportion to the progress of her portrait, until the moment of the final brushstroke when the artist exults, "This is indeed Life itself!" (Poe 570) When he turns to his beloved, he finds that she has perished. Although Poe's use of a painter rather than a writer thinly veils its autobiographical portent, "The Oval Portrait" expresses Poe's own doubts about the harm that his own obsessions may have contributed to the decline of Virginia. He could easily remember how his family had suffered during the times when he was unemployed, sometimes unable even to afford food and fuel. This passionate, "wild, and moody man," this soul "who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride," (569-70) was this not Poe himself confessing the self-imposed guilt which had hounded him, even from the recesses of unconsciousness, since early childhood?
Another common thread runs through all, and this thread involves Poe's passionately spiritual relationship with women. In both his life and in the tales presented herein, the passions of the soul may have been the best that Poe and his narrators could do for a woman, yet Poe could not justify his limitations to his judging self. He searched for the women of his dream for the knowledge that they could bring to bear, to substitute for the security which he had been repeatedly denied, and for the vitality which he knew he lacked. All of them were, in their way, a replaying in the amphitheater of the lost Eliza. Writing of "Ligeia," Daniel Hoffman claims that Rowena holds no promise for the narrator, for he is "imprisoned by his first, his only, his only possible devotion." (255) Hoffman believes
Roger Asselineau writes of Poe's "incurable trauma caused by the tragic disappearance of his mother," and how this event dominated his existence, making necessary his marriage to a child-wife. (23) T.S. Eliot also noted that Poe's powerful intellect seemed that "of a highly gifted young person before puberty..., whose emotional development has been in some respect arrested at an early age." Since his childhood needs after Eliza's death remained unaddressed, Poe did not develop in all areas of human experience, which may explain why his understanding of love remained very young and very pure. Ms. Whitman wrote to Ms. Hewitt of the character of Poe's love--"more intimate & more remote--a strange inexplicable enchantment that I can neither analyze nor comprehend." (Quinn 587) And who but Poe could have penned "Annabel Lee," whose speaker laments the loss of a love so young and so pure that it arouses the envy of the seraphs of heaven?
In his last year and in uneven health, Poe still sought to fill the vacuum of his remembrance with the women of his dream. In his tales, they represent a narcissistic female counterpart to Poe himself, for these women, these heroines, were created from his psyche, strangely dissociated from carnal aspect. Poe conjured them as surrogates to lessen his lonelyache and to preserve his sanity. Sadly, they waste away as the narrator looks helplessly on. Poe's raw experience with dying women plied him to his narrators' destinies, for they are, again, only reflections of Poe himself, alone in his own dreamland.
Other essays by David Grantz
Altruda, Elisabeth (interview), September 15, 1998.
Asselineau, Roger. "Edgar Allan Poe." Pamphlets on American Writers, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Basler, Roy P. "The Interpretation of 'Ligeia.' Poe. ed. Robert Regen, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
Benton, Richard P. "Friends and Enemies: Women in the Life of Edgar Allan Poe." Myths and Reality: The Mysterious
Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co, 1972.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co. 1966.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: The Modern Library, 1938.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Portable Poe. ed. Philip Van Doren Stern, New York: Penguin Books, 1945.
Quinn A. Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins