Text: Richard P. Benton, “Bedlam Patterns: Love and the Idea of Madness in Poe's Fiction,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1979


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Richard P. Benton

Associate Professor of English
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

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Over fifty years ago, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), D. H. Lawrence observed that Poe was not concerned with Indians and Nature but rather with the disintegration process of the human psyche.

A quarter of a century later, in a lecture delivered at Boston College in February of 1951, Allen Tate considered Poe “the transitional figure in modern literature because he discovered our great subject, the disintegration of personality.”

Indeed many of Poe’s tales, including some of the most important, present analyses of madness: “Berenice,” “Morella,” the novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “Ligeia,” “Silence,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “The Man of the Crowd,” “Eleonora,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” the comic “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “Hop Frog.” Thus madness was of major interest to Poe and deserves our attention.

Lawrence believed that the literature of the American Renaissance displays a dual rhythm which consists of a “disintegrating and sloughing of the old consciousness” and the “forming of a new consciousness underneath.” He thought Cooper had set the two vibrations going together but that Poe had not, being capable only — because of his scientific mind — of setting in motion the “disintegrative vibration.” However right generally, Lawrence should have considered more closely the novel Pym wherein Poe sets humming the integrative vibration as well.

What was Poe’s idea of madness? What varieties did he recognize? If he saw clearly the disintegrative process of the psyche, what did he think could integrate it? To what extent, if any, was he presenting his own mental problems in his fiction? These are the questions I shall attempt to answer here. ­[page 2:]


First, then, the stories concerning madness fall roughly into two categories: those of love and those of hate, with some overlapping, for some involve both, and those involving hate lead to crime. Here we will be concerned only with the love stories.

To understand the madness in Poe’s love stories, Lawrence’s philosophy of love is perhaps the key. Defining love as “the mysterious vital attraction which draws thing [[things]] together,” he saw the sex act as the “crisis of love,” because in sexual union the two blood systems of male and female come into the closest possible contact, “the merest film,” as he puts it, separating the two. A breaking of this film would prove destructive. Lawrence is thinking here in biological terms, but I believe the implication is more psychological. He’s trying to emphasize that lovers ought not to try to become one another, not lose their separate identities, in short, that there’s a limit to love.

Additionally, Lawrence points out, organisms only survive through contact with other organisms, which means communication and assimilation of nonmaterial vibrations. Man not only feels but also thinks and communicates with his fellow man through various forms of language — body language, sign language, words. As Lawrence says, “He takes into him the life of his fellow men, with whom he comes into contact, and he gives back life to them. This contact draws nearer and nearer, as the intimacy increases. When it is a whole contact, we call it love.”

Here we have the bases of the two kinds of love there are: physical and mental. Lawrence calls the latter type “nervous love.” They have traditionally been referred to as sensual and spiritual, or earthly and heavenly, or sacred and profane. At any rate, whether it be physical or mental, man ought not to try to live by love. If “men live by love,” says Lawrence, “they die, or cause death, if they love too much.” Thus conflict arises and the question: where should we draw the line in human relationships?

This brings us to Poe and the idea of madness. ­[page 3:]


“Ligeia” illustrates how two passions — to love and to know — contend for supremacy, ending in the mutual destruction of man and woman. As a story of the physical vs. the mental, it is a battle of wills and concerns a woman who knows how to love a man, but loves him too well, and a man who does not know how to love a woman at all, but loves only analysis, whose obsession leads to hatred and murder.

As the story opens the unnamed narrator is married to a dark-haired German — perhaps a Jewess — a lady of great physical beauty but also extensively learned and of powerful intellect. Of majestic demeanor, tall and slender, she moves with a light, elastic step like a shadow or vision in an opium dream. A scholar well acquainted with foreign languages, mathematics, physical science, and metaphysics, she is also a poet and a student of transcendentalism. Outwardly calm, the most violent passions rage within her. She is especially celebrated for her great strength of will and intensity of thought, action, and speech.

Though her husband describes himself as her devoted pupil, he actually sees Ligeia as simply an object for scientific scrutiny and analysis. At the same time, she loves him passionately in a womanly manner — tender, warm, physical, submissive. Unresponsive to such an approach, his relation to her remains purely mental. To him she is a mere mechanism, with a “marble” hand and an “elastic” step, whose workings titillate his nervous system. All he wants with her, as Lawrence says, is “to analyse her, till he knows all her component parts” and has put them in his consciousness. But he doesn’t succeed; there’s something he can’t quite get — the meaning of the expression he sees in her eyes. This is frustrating to him, and respecting his expression he declaims, “What was it? I was possessed with a passion to discover. . . .” As Lawrence commented, “To try to know any living being is to try to suck the life out of that being. . . . You have to kill a thing to know it satisfactorily. . . .” An old-fashioned woman, Ligeia is willing to submit to her man even though she knows it means death. Under the basilisk-like scrutiny of her husband, she sacrifices herself on the altar of male worship. Like Othello, the narrator kills the woman he pretends to love.

A self-deceiver, the narrator feigns grief. Leaving Germany, he goes to England where he purchases an abbey of “regal magnificence” which has the unusual feature of a décor suggestive of madness, with ­[page 4:] “Bedlam patterns” in the carpet. He marries again, this time a blue-eyed Saxon-Cornish blonde, the Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine.

With this marriage, the narrator’s madness manifests itself more strongly than before. If he was the “mad scientist” before, he is the revengeful sadist and homicidal maniac now, with premeditated persecution and death on his mind. The décor of the abbey mirrors this madness, particularly the bridal chamber, with its weird conglomeration of Western and Eastern design and its harbingers of death. A huge room lying in a high turret of the abbey, it is pentagonal in shape. From the high ceiling, suspended from a gold chain, hangs a censer of Saracenic design giving forth psychedelic illumination. Egyptian coffins of black granite stand on end at each of the angles of the pentagon. The walls of the room are draped in cloth of gold spotted with arabesque figures which can be perceived as devils from certain angles as one moves about. This “phantasmagoric effect” is heightened by the introduction of an artificial current of wind behind the draperies, providing an animation to the whole.

When the narrator was married to Ligeia, he was obsessed with the desire to know her innermost Self, but Death had snatched her from him and denied him his vampirish satisfaction. Now his nervous lust to know a woman psychologically has turned into a nervous hatred of woman, with the Lady Rowena the physical object of that hatred. Cleverly he had obtained her person from the security of her family by disguising his madness, but she soon showed her dislike of him. As she was repelled by him, he loathed her, “with a hatred,” he says “belonging more to a demon than to a man.” At the same time, he recalls the deep love Ligeia had borne him, and now responds with physical burning, unconscious of his necrophilia.

But the more things apparently change, the more they remain the same. The narrator wants to do to Rowena what he had tried to do to Ligeia — to possess her by killing her. This time, however, he is conscious of his intent and plainly contemplates murder. Lawrence explained this kind of psychology very well: “The lust of hate,” he commented, “is the inordinate desire to consume and unspeakably possess the soul of the hated one, just as the lust of love is the desire to possess, or to be possessed by, the beloved, utterly.” The result is the same.

Like Ligeia before her, the Lady Rowena now falls ill. Her sickness is not caused by her lust to be possessed by the one she loves but simply by poison. As Rowena lies on her deathbed, the narrator, filled with thoughts of Ligeia, fancies her presence, thinks he sees her spirit flit by ­[page 5:] like a shadow. Because Rowena appears faint, her husband gets her a glass of wine. As he puts the glass to her lips, he sees, as he puts it, three or four drops of a red fluid fall into the wine. She drinks the concoction and in a short time expires.

As her husband later sits by her corpse, he thinks he hears her utter a gentle sob. As the night wears on he thinks he observes her body stir. Gradually the dead Rowena assumes the living form of Ligeia! He wonders if by an exercise of her gigantic volition Ligeia has taken possession of the body of Rowena. Evidently he thinks so.

Since throughout this portion of the story the narrator admits that he is under the influence of opium, the above description would suggest hallucination. In Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (1973), G. R. Thompson comments that “the narrator’s memory of the strange face of Ligeia, coupled with his blurred memory of her as a real person and his calling upon her name as he wakes from opium dreams in the dead of night suggest a demonic and delusive construct in his mind.” But this applies more to the dead than to the living Ligeia. The logic of the story suggests more strongly that the frustrating aspect of her death precipated her husband over the brink of sanity resulting in his hatred of Rowena and her murder. His version of the matter is his method of salving his conscience. At any rate, whether Poe intended Ligeia to be real and the reincarnation a supernatural event, her husband is her vampire, her incubus, and she his vampire, his succubus. The root of their madness lies in his lust to possess and her lust to be possessed. Both husband and wife are victims of obsession-compulsion that stems from inordinate loving.

Now let’s turn to a different kind of story but a tale of love as well — “Eleonora.” The nameless narrator begins with the following description of himself:

I am come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence — whether much that is glorious — whether all that is profound — does not spring from disease of thought — from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in waking, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil. They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless into the vast ocean of the ‘light ineffable,’ and again, like the adventures of the Nubian geographer [Ali-Idrisi], ‘agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset ­[page 6:] exploraturi’ [They entered the sea of darkness in order that they might explore what was therein].

No more radical statement can be found in Poe. It strikes at the heart of our attitude toward madness today. We speak glibly of what is “normal” and “abnormal,” not considering that what we designate “normal” is not necessarily a desirable state. In The Politics of Experience (1967), psychiatrist R. D. Laing tells us that our “normal” is “a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection, and other forms of destructive action or experience” that “is radically estranged from the structure of being.” The “normal” person is simply someone who acts like everyone else and who has been “programmed” to act that way by his society. To act contrary to the “program” is to be labeled “abnormal,” “mad,” “sociopathic,” “psychopathic,” “schizophrenic,” or some other designation connoting our disapproval. But as Laing points out, “There are forms of alienation that are relatively strange to statistically ‘normal’ forms of alienation.” Though the “normally” alienated person is taken to be sane because he acts more or less like everyone else, stranger forms of alienation are labeled “bad” or “mad.” To be “normal” means to go through life relatively unconscious, not to dream by day, to curb one’s passions, and to rein in one’s fancy. It is the tragedy of geniuses that they must be discovered by uncreative people, “normal” people.

The narrator of “Eleonora” knows what “normal” people will think of his fantasy. They do not regard fantasy as a legitimate mode of experience, “a particular way of relating to the world” that may have “its own validity, its own rationality.” In short, they will think him “mad.” So, facetiously, he capitulates to their judgment: “We will say, then,” he confesses, “that I am mad.” With this irony the reader is assured that he does not have to credit the narrator’s story with any truth content.

Having confessed his madness, the narrator tells us that his life has been divided into two main eras — an innocent period when “lucid reason” prevailed; and a period of experience when “shadow and doubt” became manifest. In the first era he lived in the Valley of Many-Colored Grass with his cousin, Eleonora, and her mother. He and Eleonora loved one another until she died. In the second he has moved to a city where he has obtained a position at the king’s court. There he meets and marries Ermengarde. The two apparently live happily ever after. The narrator suggests to us that if we fail to credit his story we are to play, as he puts it, “unto its riddle the Oedipus.” This clue would suggest that it has to do with the several ages of man; specifically, it has ­[page 7:] to do with how the power of love operates during two important stages — namely, during adolescence and adulthood.

After roaming the Valley of Many-Colored Grass for fifteen years, the narrator and Eleonora draw “the god Eros” from the River of Silence and Love enters their hearts. Their passions and their fancies burst forth and breathe “a delirious bliss” over the valley. It is clear from the symbolism of the text that their love is physical and is consummated. Shortly afterwards, however, Eleonora falls sick and eventually dies, changing the character of the valley from happiness to sadness. Before she died, Eleonora made the narrator promise that he would never “marry” another. Failure to keep his oath would result in a curse being invoked against him.

Having left the Valley of Many-Colored Grass and moved to a city, the narrator becomes a courtier at the king’s court where he meets Ermengarde, falls passionately in love with her, and legally marries her. Despite his vow to Eleonora, he does not fear the curse, nor does he feel guilty. One night he appears to hear the voice of Eleonora speaking to him: “ ‘sleep in peace,’ ” she says, “ ‘for the Spirit of Love reigned and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows to Eleonora.’ ”

Several implications are immediately to be drawn from Poe’s tale. Apart from it being about how the power of love operates during adolescence and adulthood, it also deals with the narrator’s search within himself for the secrets of life and being, and it illustrates how the “natural man” loses his freedom to become the repressed or civilized man. In short, it is Poe’s version of the Fall of Man and how he adapts to his “fallenness.”

Let me explain further: A man’s relationship to his childhood is like that of Adam after the Fall. He recalls with pleasure his childhood in his Garden of Eden, now that as an adult he is condemned to the pains of existence beyond the pale of paradise. Like Keats’s Adam, Poe’s narrator awakes from his dream to find it true; in his dream “lucid reason” prevailed, but in his fallen state he lives in “shadow and doubt.” In The Forgotten Language (1951), psychologist Erich Fromm describes man’s relationship to his childhood in much the same terms as Poe does in “Eleonora”:

This age of childhood, in which the sense of shame is unknown, seems a paradise when we look back upon it later, and paradise itself is nothing but the mass-phantasy of the childhood of the individual. This is why in paradise men are naked and unashamed, until the moment arrive ­[page 8:] when shame and fear awaken: expulsion follows, and sexual life and cultural development begin. Into this paradise dreams can take us back every night. . . .

Poe saw the value of fantasy as a legitimate mode of experience, knowing that the secrets of life and Being are fathomed through the intuitive power of the imagination.

To return to Poe’s story, there the narrator recalls his dream of Eleonora in the Valley of Many-Colored Grass. She is simply his feminine ideal, literally his “dream girl,” who in his dream becomes his “natural” wife. In other words, she is what the psychologist Jung calls the “anima.” Further, probing the depths of his inner being, the narrator discovers the “River of Silence” that flows out of it, that Nothingness or non-Being; and in the wave of that river he fishes out “the god Eros” — discovers his puberty and the sexual life. Thus the Valley of Many-Colored Grass was his Garden of Eden, his paradise, before his “fall” into adulthood.

Expelled from that paradise by “falling” into adulthood, he finds himself in the city and court of culture and civilization. He enters into the prison of legal marriage with Ermengarde for a turnkey. He “adapts” himself to the repression of Eros and becomes one of that numerous progeny of civilized society — the “statistically normal.” Although “fallen” from his savage state of innocence in which shame, fear, and a knowledge of evil were unknown, he has not, however, completely lost himself. Having developed a “schizoid defense,” he plays at being mad to throw those dangerous people, the “normals,” off the track. In “shadow and doubt” he is split between what he was in his dream and what he is now. Like a Blake or a Rimbaud he retains a vision of the world he can live by, separating fantasy and reality for his own purpose.

If “Eleonora” is about the nature of love and marriage and how a man adapts himself to the repression of civilization, “Berenice” is about the fear of physical love and its consequences. The narrator, Egaeus, is a man descended from an ancient, aristocratic family, “a race of visionaries.” Disposed to reverie, dreaminess, flights of fancy, and gifted with precognition, he is also sickly, melancholy, weighed down by thought, studious, and given to intense and painful meditation. He lives with Berenice, his cousin, a girl quite his opposite. She is radiant with health, energetic, agile, graceful, unstudious, thoughtless, and carefree. He is disturbed by the swift passage of time, she is without time consciousness. He senses a tragic future, to her the future is a blank. Suddenly a terminal disease takes hold of her; she begins to waste away. ­[page 9:]

Like the husband of Ligeia, Egaeus felt no love for Berenice while she was healthy and beautiful; she was to him nothing but an object to be analyzed. But now that she is diseased and in a condition of dissolution he falls in love with her. In fact, he suggests to her that they marry. When she agrees, they become engaged. As their wedding day approaches, however, he begins to feel anxious, breathless, and motionless. When his “burning glances” fall upon her face, he feels repulsed and horrified. When his eyes focus on her teeth, he begins to dread them.

As time goes on he desires her teeth with “a passionate longing” until to him they become ideas which obsess him to the point that they maintain a “terrible ascendancy” over him. He has a premonition of some terrible disaster.

A maidservant rushes into his presence to inform him that Berenice is no more, has died of epilepsy, and preparations are already under way for her immediate burial. At this news Egaeus experiences a blackout. Then hearing the shriek of a female voice, he vaguely feels that he has performed some horrible deed. A servant eventually makes him understand that Berenice’s grave has been opened and her body violated. With horror written on his face, the servant points to Egaeus’s muddy feet and bloody clothing, and the muddy spade standing in the corner of the room. Suddenly remembering something, Egaeus opens a box on his desk to reveal thirty-two white teeth!

Here we have a man of ideas to whom the poetry of the concrete must be transformed into the science of the abstract. Realities are visions to him and dreams his realities. But this inversion of thought is but a symptom of a more serious malady — fear of sex. He feared to love a healthy, vibrant woman physically, indeed was terrified by such thought. Not until Berenice was diseased and become transformed into a corpse could he bear the thought of love. Even then he must be a fetishist and her teeth his fetish. This was nothing but a displacement of his sexual interest in Berenice’s vagina, and even her teeth were transposed into ideas, which as an intellectual he could tolerate. But he trapped himself, for he then yearned to possess these ideas; hence the rape of Berenice. In sum, the true source of Egaeus’s madness was his desire to love and his fear of it. The result was sensory disturbance, hysteria, obsession, compulsion, amnesia, emotional upset, delusion, and rape.

In “Morella,” likewise, the protagonist is repelled by Eros. He is incapable of physical love, is a victim of repression. Though when he first meets Morella, he is, he claims, set afire, he denies that the fire is of Eros. He declares that he “never spoke of passion” to her not even ­[page 10:] “thought of love.” She, on the other hand, is in love with him and utterly devoted to him alone, so much that she shuns society.

A woman of profound erudition and gigantic power of mind, Morella is a student of German mysticism. The narrator becomes her pupil. Apparently a Roman Catholic, he becomes frightened while with her poring over what he terms “forbidden pages” of some book evidently on the Index Expurgatorius. He feels he is being corrupted and calls on the Virgin Mary for assistance. From this time Morella seems to him to change in a way that further terrifies him until he fears the loss of his own soul.

Though they discuss certain subjects, such as the notion of personal identity, he becomes increasingly repelled by Morella. He declares that he cannot bear to touch her. Here his fear of heresy is as important as his fear of love. She has accused him of being “ignorant of the myrtle and the vine” — i.e., no devotee of Venus and Bacchus, but she has also taught him the philosophy of Fichte and Schelling, even that of Pythagoras, i.e., doctrines of pantheism and of reincarnation which are at variance with his Catholic training. He begins to hate her and wishes her dead despite the fact that she is pregnant with his child. As a result, Morella falls ill.

Realizing that she is dying, Morella informs her husband that she knows that he can never love her while she lives. She predicts, however, that he will love her after she is dead, for she will live afterwards through their child. She predicts, further, that his future will be filled with sorrow and upbraids him for “being ignorant of the myrtle and the vine.” She dies in the process of giving birth to a daughter.

With more than a hint of the incestuous, the narrator confesses that he loves his daughter “with a love more fervent that [[than]] I had believed it possible to feel for any denizen of earth.” An astonishing phenomenon then begins to develop: the child exhibits the powers of mind of an adult and matures physically at a rapid rate; finally, she grows into a perfect resemblance of her mother. He is amazed to discover the woman in the child and shudders at their “too perfect identity.”

When the time arrives for the daughter to be baptized, her father has never spoken the name “Morella” since her death. At the baptismal font, however, he is inwardly prompted to utter her name. At this utterance, the daughter’s face suddenly takes on a fiendish appearance, but then as suddenly becomes convulsed with “the hues of death.” As the daughter falls down dying, she manages to gasp, “ ‘I am here.’ ” Thus, Morella has momentarily taken demonic possession of her daughter’s body, but being a heretic and a thing of evil she does not survive. ­[page 11:]

The madness in the story of Morella, then, is due to conflicts within the narrator concerning love and religion. Whether Poe intended us to take the reincarnation and demonic possession literally or as the delusion of a troubled mind is uncertain, but this hardly matters as far as the pathology in the story is concerned.

Among the stories belonging to this group about love perhaps “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the greatest. It is also the most complicated in structure and symbolism.

In “The Fall” the narrator tells the story of his bosom friend, Roderick Usher, and of Roderick’s sister, Madeleine, the inmates of the “House,” and the last remnants of an ancient and decaying family.

Roderick is suffering from depression and nerves. He is in an extreme state of agitation, being in the grip of some unknown terror. He has summoned the narrator to assist him in his present illness, hoping particularly that he can cheer him up. Having arrived at the House of Usher, the narrator finds that Madeleine is also suffering from a nervous malady, is cataleptic, and indeed is dying.

Apparently dead, Madeleine is carried by the narrator and her brother down into a deep vault within the house. Roderick roams about in a state of incipient madness, terrified at an unknown something, and as we learn later, guilt-ridden. After eight days have passed, Roderick and his companion are startled to hear a clangorous but muffled reverberation. Rigid as stone, a sickly smile on his face, Roderick manages in the midst of his gibbering to exclaim: “ ‘We have put her living in the tomb!’ ” The narrator indicates his disbelief, but Roderick calls him a madman and declares that Madeleine at this moment is standing outside the door.

A storm is raging outside the house. Suddenly a powerful gust of wind blows open the huge doors at which Roderick is pointing revealing “the lofty and enshrouded” figure of Madeleine, who falls inward upon her brother bearing him to the floor, both brother and sister expiring together.

Aghast, the narrator flees from the house. In his flight he sees the mansion of the Ushers collapse into the dark tarn adjoining the structure. All the fearful anticipations of Roderick have now come to pass.  

If fear can kill, so can love. Roderick fears from the first because he knows that his love is killing his sister. He also knows that he has buried her precipitantly alive because he could not bear to witness what he was doing to her; and he fears that she will rise against him, which she does because her love for him is unappeased and unsatiated. ­[page 12:]

As Eric W. Carlson observes in Poe on the Soul of Man (1973), “As twins, neither one of whom can exist without the other, Roderick and Madeleine represent complementary opposites of the Self.” Split, they want to be unified. The split in the Usher psyche is indicated by a number of clues, the most prominent being the fissure in the House. Their desire for unity, however, constitutes a moral issue — that of incest. It seems that both Roderick and Madeleine are conscious of this moral issue, are extremely troubled and guilty about it to the point that it contributes to their mental and physical disintegration.

Roderick’s incestuous desire is particularly made evident by the story-within-the-story, “The Mad Trist.” The story tells of the knight Ethelred’s desire to be admitted to the house of a hermit. Upon being refused admission, he proceeds to gain entry by force. Upon entering the house, he is amazed to find no hermit but a fiery dragon guarding a treasure trove. Ethelred promptly kills the beast, which obviously is the hermit metamorphosed.

What is the story of “The Mad Trist” but a sexual dream and a nightmare? A “trist” (in modern spelling “tryst”) is an appointment made by lovers, usually in some secluded place. In dreams a house frequently symbolizes the body, particularly the female body. The hermit, simply “a solitary person,” is metamorphosed into a dragon — in dreams a beast which frequently symbolized the mother. The treasure would be her vagina. The knight symbolizes the hero and his axe his phallus. In short, from the standpoint of dream symbolism, here we have the hero, the knight Ethelred — obviously a surrogate for Roderick — who wishes to enter the body of his mother, and when refused admission he uses his phallus to rape her. Here is a narrative of the workings of an Oedipal complex, and it is told by Poe in such a way that it parallels the escape of Madeleine.

Is the situation that since Roderick’s mother is dead, he has transferred his Oedipal complex to his twin sister? Roderick and Madeleine have a tryst to become one, and their tryst is, like Ethelred’s, mad because it also involves incest. Recall the words of Lawrence: “The central law of all organic life is that each organism is intrinsically isolate and single in itself,” and “the moment its isolation breaks down, and there comes an actual mixing and confusion, death sets in.” Roderick and Madeleine feel the ecstacy of their love until their nerves are “vibrating in unison like two instruments.” They have lost themselves in themselves. The result is mixing, confusion, and death.

Further evidence of Roderick’s sexual interest in Madeleine is shown by the symbolism of his abstract painting, an art work of his own ­[page 13:] composition. The picture shows simply a long white tunnel bathed in bright light from an unknown source. An appropriate title for the painting might be “The Pure Radiance of Virginity.” But Eros is suppressed, dammed up. As a consequence of the exhilaration of his nervous love, Roderick has lost his Self, and actually quavering, as Lawrence says, “on the verge of material existence.”

“On the verge of material existence.” It seems that Poe proposes in “The Fall” that whatever happens is bound up with the entire universal process, that there are correspondences between the behavior of all things great and small, from planet to atom, from a whole series of actions to one act or a single thought or feeling connected with such events. Believing that all vegetable things have sentience, Roderick is convinced, says Lawrence, “that his whole surroundings, the stones in the house, the fungi, the water in the tarn, the very reflected image of the whole,” are “woven into a physical oneness with the family . . . .” Having lost his Self, he is truly quavering “on the verge of material existence.” In fact, he is contemplating his own total annihilation, his passage into Nothingness, which Poe tells us in Eureka constitutes that Unity to which all things in the material Universe are tending and to which all things will eventually return. The Universe, therefore, is not mere chaos but a universal pattern of movement governed by an Immutable Law of Change. In loving one another the way they do, Roderick and Madeleine have violated certain biological, psychological, and moral laws. These violations have their repercussions not only on themselves but also affect their whole physical environment and alter the universal pattern. Thus Poe raises their love affair to cosmological dimensions.

If the foregoing serves as an explanation of the mad behavior of Roderick and Madeleine Usher, what of the narrator, “whose mind,” as Thompson points out, “if not disintegrating also, is capable of slipping in an instant into the same kind of madness or hysterical fear to which Usher is subject?” Sent for to help relieve Roderick’s depression, the narrator’s spirit is pervaded with “insufferable gloom” the moment he sights the House of Usher. Although he proposes that the scene itself is responsible for this effect, his impressions are actually highly subjective. We also recall that Roderick accuses him of being mad. Although this may seem like a case of the kettle calling the pot black, there are clues to indicate the mental deterioration of the narrator. As soon as he meets Roderick he becomes infected with his hysteria and fear to the point that he becomes just like Usher. In fact, as Thompson says, “In meeting Usher he is symbolically staring into the face of his psychological ­[page 14:] double, and when he steps through the ‘Gothic’ archway of Usher’s house . . . it is clear that the narrator has stepped into the confused, subjective world of Gothic terror and horror.” It is plain from the first that the narrator himself is deranged and that we are dealing with the Doppelgänger motif.

That is, it is plain if we see that the controlling image of the Usher story is the human face, for the image of the face is the principal clue to the Doppelgänger motif. For instance, the narrator’s first impression of the house is that it resembles a human face in a state of decay, with “eye-like windows.” Then, when Usher composes his poem “The Haunted Palace,” he sees the human face as a house, at first “stately” and “radiant,” but soon afterward changed for the worse by “evil things” which set it afire, causing a turmoil. The narrator tells us that he sees the face of the house reflected in the water of the tarn. Since to view this image he had to rein his horse to the brink of the tarn, he obviously also sees his own face. And since the people of the neighborhood refer to both house and family as the House of Usher, therefore the face of the house and Roderick’s face are the same. When the narrator’s face is reflected in the tarn, the face of the house is merged with his own, as Thompson says, “symbolically is his own.” In sum, house, family, Roderick and Madeleine, and the narrator are ONE — split images of one another and projections of the narrator’s consciousness.

Since the narrator is mad and also familiar with the effects of opium, we do not know to what extent the things he has told us are “real.” Unless Poe intended a supernaturalistic explanation for the escape of Madeleine from the tomb, that episode is simply incredible. It would seem, therefore, as Thompson contends, that “the ghosts in the tale of Usher . . . are those of the mind.” As he further says, “The whole tale and its structures may be the fabrication of the completely deranged mind of the narrator. Nothing at all may have happened in a conventional sense in the outside world — only in the inner world of the narrator’s mind.” In this way the mode of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the same as that of “Ligeia” and “Eleonora” — a dream narrative, a tale of the inner life of the mind.

In respect to Poe’s love stories and the idea of madness, to what conclusion can we come? To the conclusion that imbalance in loving and conflict between Eros and Agapé, i.e., between physical and spiritual love can cause a breakdown of the mind and even result in death. Loving involves both kinds of love, and the two must be balanced; one without the other will not do. Repression and fear of sex with a consequent commitment to nervous love only results in a breakdown of the nervous ­[page 15:] system, mental and emotional disturbance, madness, and death. Recognition of the separateness and freedom of the human person is also crucial; desire for possession or the desire to be possessed makes for sadism and masochism, brings about exploitation, and breaks down this separateness and denies human freedom. These are the chief factors in Poe’s love stories which contribute to the dissociation of personality and the tragedy of loving neither wisely nor well.


And what of Poe himself? Was the main problem of his love stories to any extent his own? The answer must be yes. All his life he needed to love and be loved, but like the protagonists of his tales he feared Eros and favored Agapé. As Lawrence says, ‘He was told on every hand that this ecstacy of spiritual, nervous love was the greatest thing in life, was life itself. “ Conversely, he was also told by his Puritan society that sex was impure, sinful, and shameful. The result was conflict. Such conflict is well expressed in his autobiographical poem “Ulalume,” written shortly after the death of his wife, Virginia. The protagonist of the poem is walking with his soul, Psyche, when they sight in the sky the star of Astarte, i.e., the goddess of fertility and sexual love. Psyche immediately is fearful, as the protagonist indicates:

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,

Said — “Sadly, this star I mistrust —

Her pallor I strangely mistrust: —

Oh, hasten! — oh, let us not linger!

Oh, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”

This conflict in real life manifested itself in Poe’s love affair with Mrs. “Annie” Richmond. Her husband was suspicious of Poe’s so-called Platonic affection for his wife. When Poe learned of the husband’s suspicions, he wrote a letter to “Annie” indignantly denying that his love for her bore any resemblance to the earthly. “Dear Annie,” he wrote, “God knows dear Annie, with what horror I would have shrunk from insulting a nature so divine as yours, with any impure or earthly love.” And he indicated his bitterness that Mr. Richmond should suspect “what is not.” Here Poe is hardly a man who is realistic about life or honest with Annie and certainly not with himself. Mr. Richmond’s suspicions were not unfounded. That Poe had a physical passion for ­[page 16:] Annie is shown by the extreme emotional tone of some of his letters to her and by his attempted suicide in an effort to get her to come to his side even after he was dead. For instance, in his letter to her in which he recounts his unsuccessful suicide attempt, he begins: “Why am I not with you now darling that I might . . . look deep down into the clear Heaven of your eyes . . . whisper in your ear the divine emotion[s], which agitate me[?]. . . .” Later he wrote his beautiful poem “For Annie,” in which the erotic nature of the imagery demonstrates well enough the physical aspect of his love for Mrs. Richmond, dreaming as he does that his face is drowned in her hair and that she kisses and caresses him until he falls asleep on her bosom.

Poe’s repression of Eros and his favoring Agapé’ no doubt contributed to his nervous condition, for he was always a nervous and high-strung individual. He loved his wife, Virginia, devotedly and passionately, but she was thirteen years old when he married her and he was twenty-six. By the age of twenty she was a consumptive invalid for the rest of her life. Some authorities doubt that the marriage was ever consummated, but this conclusion may be going too far. Virginia was Poe’s cousin and he called her “Sissy.”

At any rate, before his wife died Poe began to carry on a series of Platonic love affairs with various women who like Mrs. Richmond were married: Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Ellet, and Mrs. Locke, all quite conventional literary affairs, perhaps — for the ladies were all writers — and with Virginia’s knowledge; but the relationships demonstrate that Poe wanted nervous love and was obsessed with it.

Following the death of “Sissy,” Poe was grief-stricken, but his pursuit of two women — Sarah Helen Whitman and Elmira Royster Shelton — with proposals of marriage — show that Poe was desperate for a replacement for Virginia, that he needed love. Mrs. Whitman, a widow, lived in Providence and wrote poetry. She was six years older than Poe. They became engaged to be married, but at the insistence of her mother the engagement was broken. In a letter to her he tells her the impression she made on him when he first met her: “As you entered the room,” he wrote, “pale, timid, hesitating, and evidently oppressed at heart; as your eyes rested appealingly, for one brief moment, upon mine, I felt, for the first time in my life . . . the existence of spiritual influences . . . I saw that you were Helenmy Helen — the Helen of a thousand dreams. . . .” Here we see that nervous love he craved continue to wrench his being.

His engagement to Mrs. Whitman broken, Poe next found his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster Shelton, a widow in Richmond, ­[page 17:] and he began a second romance with her. He proposed marriage to her and an understanding was reached between them. It seems, however, that not much passion was involved in their relationship; they were both clutching at their youth and nothing more; Elmira was more bored than otherwise, and Poe was simply desperate.

With marriage, therefore, once more in prospect, Poe left Richmond and Elmira for Baltimore; yet his love life was unsettled, for he was in conflict. He might marry Elmira, but “Annie” was held in reserve; for, while he was hopeful of marrying Elmira, he dreamed of loving “Annie,” the woman he loved with passionate, physical devotion, but whom he could not have. She would not divorce Mr. Richmond, and in a letter to her Poe suggested that it would be unwise for them to step over the Platonic threshold.

Elmira reports that when Poe left her he was feverish and in a deep depression. When Poe was depressed he drank. Arrived in Baltimore, he visited a friend, Dr. Brooks, who reported later that the poet was intoxicated. A few days later, Dr. Snodgrass, a physician who lived in the vicinity of Cooth & Sergeant’s Tavern, received a note from an acquaintance that a Mr. Poe was in the barroom of the tavern in area distress and needed his assistance. The good doctor found the literary “knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering” at the tavern. A few days later Poe was admitted to Washington Hospital where he died still seeking no doubt that love which can be found nowhere except perhaps in Eldorado.

In sum, afraid and ashamed of physical love, Poe demanded nervous love. Knowing, however, what his own problem was, he tried to illustrate it in his fiction. As Lawrence concludes, “The human soul in him was beside itself. But it was not lost. He told us plainly how it was, so that we should know.” If his soul was not lost, it was badly scarred and bent. “Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous” he was, but we will not say that he was mad.



It should be noted that Dr. Benton’s comments about Poe’s personal love-life are subjective and are not established by a definitive analysis of the evidence. The question of how much Poe is writing about himself or his own views in his fiction is a contentious argument which has been the subject of considerable debate. Also, the strongly pseudo-sexual, almost Freudian, reading of the tales noted is not necessarily a generally accepted approach.

This lecture was delivered by Dr. Benton, Associate Professor of English at Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut, at the Fifty-Sixth Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society, October 8, 1978.

© 1979 and 2000, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - BPLIMPF, 1979] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Bedlam Patterns: Love and the Idea of Madness in Poe's Fiction (R. P. Benton, 1979)