Text: Jerry A. Herndon, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’: Debts to Irving and Emerson,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 113-129 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 113, unnumbered:]

POE’S “LIGEIA”: DEBTS TO IRVING AND EMERSON

JERRY A. HERNDON

Most critical readings of “Ligeia” concern the narrator’s reliability. James Schroeter, John Lauber, and Thomas Ollive Mabbott argue that the story is to be read literally. In their view, “Ligeia” is a story of the supernatural told by a narrator whose word is to be trusted.(1) Others — like Roy P. Basler, James Gargano, Floyd Stovall, and G. R. Thompson — consider the tale a portrayal of the delusion of a madman who murders a second wife in order to secure a new body for the spirit of the first.(2)

I agree with those who read the story as the narrator’s mad delusion. Poe himself once hinted at this interpretation. In a letter of 21 September 1839 to Philip Pendleton Cooke, he claimed to accept Cooke’s literal reading of the ending of the tale, but he undercut his flattering remarks about Cooke’s keenness by suggesting that he should have ended with the death of Ligeia and her entombment “as Rowena” (italics mine). This remark clearly indicates that the central meaning is the narrator’s delusion, and that the story is not to be read as a recital of actual supernatural events.(3)

To turn to the story itself, it seems significant that the narrator claims that he was so uncertain of having seen the ruby drops fall into Rowena’s wine that he “forebore to speak to her” of it, and thus failed to prevent her from swallowing it. Let us consider how he phrases his next observation, having decided that what he thought he saw was an illusion, prompted by “a vivid imagination” and opium: “Yet I cannot conceal it from my own perception that, immediately subsequent to the fall of the ruby-drops, a rapid change for the worse took place in the disorder of my wife.” Does this not suggest that there were matters which he was trying to “conceal . . . from [his] own perception” in telling his story? Namely, for instance, the source of the fatal rubydrops? This source, I propose, was his own hand. Moreover, his claim that he was trying to revive Rowena, was, perhaps, a self-deception designed to conceal from himself his efforts to recall Ligeia by murdering his second wife and providing the first with a new body.

In reading this story, we should bear in mind that the narrator is apparently telling it long after the events he recounts. For instance, he says that “long years have . . . elapsed” since his first meeting with Ligeia, and it seems clear that sufficient time has passed since the fatal conclusion of his marriage with Rowena to enable him to shake off the effects of opium addiction and express himself calmly, and, to a certain point, with clarity. Clearly, too, for a proper reading, the narrator [page 114:] should be imagined as penning his tale in a madhouse. Like the madman in Dickens’s “A Madman’s Manuscript” of The Pickwick Papers,(4) the narrator is in a lunatic’s cell, just as the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” obviously is. Recalling the shattering events of the night of Rowena’s death, the narrator records: “I felt that my vision grew dim, that my reason wandered.” Commenting on the “regal magnificence” with which he furnished his abbey for Rowena’s home, he laments: “Alas, I feel how much even of incipient madness might have been discovered in the gorgeous and fantastic draperies, in the solemn carvings of Egypt, in the wild cornices and furniture, in the Bedlam patterns of the carpets of tufted gold!” [italics mine].

This, then, is my view of Poe’s intentions in “Ligeia.” I wish to go farther, however, to examine the possibility that Poe incorporated into “Ligeia” resonances from works by two of his American contemporaries: Washington Irving and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Specifically, I shall indicate how Poe may have imitated elements in Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student” in order to produce a sharply-focused satire of Emerson’s Transcendental thought, as formulated in Nature, published two years before “Ligeia.”

I

Poe’s “Ligeia” appeared in the first number of a Baltimore journal, Nathan C. Brooks’s American Museum of Literature and the Arts, in September, 1838. It is interesting to note that Poe refused Brooks’s request for a review article on Washington Irving’s writings for that same issue. Poe claimed to be “hardly . . . conversant with Irving’s writings, having read nothing of his since I was a boy, save his ‘Granada’.”(5) He was hardly candid, however, as John Ward Ostrom points out. He had reviewed both The Crayon Miscellany and Astoria for the Southern Literary Messenger, the former for the December, 1835 issue, and the latter for the issue of January, 1837.(6) The review of The Crayon Miscellany is a one-paragraph notice, but that of Astoria is long, covering approximately nine-and-a-half large double-column pages in the SLM, and approximately thirty-seven pages in Harrison (9: 207-243).

Undoubtedly, Poe was more aware of Irving’s writings than he revealed in his letter to Brooks. Moreover, in a letter to Irving dated 12 October 1839, he admitted to having based “William Wilson” upon Irving’s brief article, “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron,” which had appeared in The Gift for 1836.(7) Even in the letter to Brooks, his comments on Irving’s shortcomings and merits as a writer seem to indicate more familiarity than he claimed. He even prompts Brooks [page 115:] (who wrote the review of Irving’s works himself) to compare Irving’s style with Addison’s, and observes that “something [should be] hinted about imitation” (O1: 112).

I assume that the “hint” Poe wanted was that Irving might have been too close a borrower. He may, that is, have been hinting to Brooks that Irving was a plagiarist. As is well known, Poe was a bit careless about such charges. It seems almost as if he were morbidly sensitive on the subject, almost as if he were fearful that his own borrowings might be detected and construed as plagiarism. Poe probably turned down Brooks’s offer to let him review Irving’s works because “Ligeia,” which would appear in the same issue of the American Museum with the review, did in fact contain borrowings from Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student.” Perhaps Poe did not want to put on record too close a familiarity with Irving’s tales, lest some knowledgeable critic detect shadows of Irving’s art in “Ligeia.”

Irving’s story, published in Tales of a Traveller in 1824,(8) seems to be a heavily satirical portrait of the Continental Transcendentalism which was to exert so important an influence on English and American Romanticism. Gottfried Wolfgang is apparently a student of German Idealism: “being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students.” Wolfgang’s “health was impaired, his imagination diseased” by his “singular . . . studies” and “his intense application . . . . until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him.” The reference to Swedenborg is interesting, inasmuch as that philosopher had an important influence on Emerson. This young man’s “unhealthy appetite” and shyness has prevented any familiarity with women, but his ardent imagination soon supplies him with a dream, in which “excited and sublimated state” he beholds “a female face of transcendent beauty” [italics mine]. Wolfgang becomes “passionately enamored of this shadow of a dream,” so much so that he becomes scarcely distinguishable from a madman.

One dark, stormy night the student encounters a solitary female seated on the steps of the guillotine, and is startled to observe the face of his dreams. He quickly offers her his aid, and, discovering that she has neither home nor friend, he takes her to his quarters, a single apartment in a “great dingy hotel.” The apartment has “one chamber, an old-fashioned salon, heavily carved, and fantastically furnished with the remains of former magnificence; for it was one of those hotels in the quarter of the Luxembourg Palace which had once belonged to nobility” [italics mine]. Irving’s brief description of the fantastic furnishings, I suggest, may have inspired Poe’s elaborate portrayal of the décor of the bridal chamber his narrator prepares for Lady Rowena — a décor of “more than regal magnificence.”(9) [page 116:]

Irving’s ironic view of the Platonic element in Transcendentalism is apparent in the student’s inability to tear himself away from his new acquaintance, though his offer to take her to his quarters had been prefaced with the reassuring proviso: “‘If a stranger dare make an offer . . . without danger of being misunderstood . . .’.” The flesh is rather hard on Platonic relationships, however, as is indicated when the student declares his passion to the young lady, who responds in kind. They shake hands on their “social compact,” and are soon in bed together. As Irving wryly remarks, far from misunderstanding Wolfgang, “[S]he was evidently an enthusiast like himself, and enthusiasts soon understand one another.” Perfectly.

Unfortunately, Wolfgang discovers the next day, on returning from a search for “more spacious apartments,” that his “wife” is dead. When the police officer summoned appears, he declares that the woman was guillotined the day before, and, as he unclasps the “bride’s” collar, her head rolls upon the floor. The student “went distracted, and died in a madhouse”; the storyteller says he got the story direct from the student in the asylum.

The striking parallels to elements of this story in “Ligeia” suggest that Poe may have imitated it to sharpen his own satiric thrust against Emersonian Transcendentalism, a subject I discuss below. Both stories illustrate the dangers of an uncritical idealism, even if its focus is “transcendent beauty”; Poe’s conviction, expressed clearly in “The Imp of the Perverse,” that Emerson and other optimists were wrong in believing that only good is permanent and real, that there is no positive evil, must have made him note the student’s “frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to insnare him.” In “Ligeia,” the evil spirit is the narrator’s own delusive pride that he can conquer death, the greatest of mortal limitations. This presumption leads him to madness and murder.

Poe’s narrator says that he first met Ligeia “in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine,” and Irving’s student, of course, is German (though, to be sure, his femme fatale is French). Poe’s

character bears the relationship of “student” to Ligeia, resigning himself “with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which [he] was most busily occupied during the earlier years” of the marriage. When she becomes ill and can no longer tutor him, he laments, “I was but as a child groping benighted”

Wolfgang’s “transcendent beauty” is described as the “shadow of a dream”; Ligeia “came and departed as a shadow” [italics mine]. Wolfgang’s “ravishingly beautiful” paramour’s “face was pale, but of a dazzling fairness, set off by a profusion of raven hair that hung clustering about it. Her eyes were large and brilliant, with a singular [page 117:] expression approaching almost to wildness” [italics mine]. Ligeia’s beauty was also transcendent and unearthly, even a “vision . . . wildly divine”: “In beauty of face no maiden ever equalled her.” Her forehead was “lofty and pale,” possessing a “divine . . . majesty”; her skin rivalled “the purest ivory”; her hair was “raven-black . . . glossy . . . luxuriant and naturally-curling . . . .” Her eyes were incredibly large, their “expression” [Poe’s italics] their most striking characteristic.

Finally, if Poe’s story is to be conceived of as told in a madhouse, the two stories share this significant characteristic, and another as well: a hint of necrophilia. In Irving’s it is more than a hint. Did the guillotined corpse ever have a head at all? Was not Wolfgang’s imagination primed, via his passionate dream, to supply a corpse with a ready-made head? If so, didn’t he bed a corpse? As for Poe’s tale, what would the passionate lover’s first move have been if he really thought Ligeia had returned to him? He has described himself, in the climactic moment, as “a helpless prey to a whirl of violent emotions, of which extreme awe was perhaps the least terrible, the least consuming” [italics mine]. The tale ends on a note of reverence, with him on his knees, but what next? The ebony bed is handy to his delusion, and no servants are within call.

We must note, too, that although the narrator recalls shrieking when he sees her eyes that he could “never be mistaken” in accepting Ligeia’s return, he also comments, just prior to this (perhaps indicating a flash of sanity in reflection?), on the “inexpressible madness” that seemed to be seizing him.

II

Poe’s distaste for Emerson and for Transcendentalism is well known. For the January, 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine, in one of his “Autography” series, Poe seized the opportunity to damn Emerson for his obscurity:

Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake. Quintilian mentions a pedant who taught obscurity, and who once said to a pupil “this is excellent, for I do not understand it myself.” How the good man would have chuckled over Mr. E.! . . . The best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? . . . to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living. (H15: 260)

Earlier, in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” (1841), Poe had presented a character with a habit of carelessly betting the Devil his [page 118:] head, apparently because he disbelieves in evil and therefore thinks the bet a safe one. No gloom, such as that inside a covered bridge, can dampen his spirits; unfortunately, after he has offered to bet the Devil his head that he can leap such a bridge’s turnstile, and “cut a pigeonwing over it in the air” as he does so, the Devil appears and accepts the bet. Toby Dammit, the protagonist, loses both bet and head. The narrator suggests that Toby’s optimism might have its source in a certain “disease,” namely, “the transcendentals.” Because Toby is a Transcendentalist, and has been taught by his mentors to disbelieve in evil, the Transcendentalists are responsible for his death. The narrator therefore buries Dammit, works “a bar sinister on his family escutcheon,” and sends a bill for his funeral expenses to the Transcendentalists. When these “scoundrels” refuse to pay (not believing in the Devil, they are certainly not going to believe the story that Dammit was done in by that personage), the narrator “had Mr. Dammit dug up at once, and sold him for dog’s meat” (M2: 621631). Poe’s meaning is clear: the Transcendentalists’ view of evil is dangerous; they are a lot of bastards (or “scoundrels”), fit only for dog food. In Eureka (1848), by suggesting that a progenitor of Transcendentalism, Immanuel Kant, would more correctly spell his name with “C” rather than “K,” Poe manages to suggest that what passed for Transcendental profundity was mere “cant.” Further, he calls the Transcendentalist “an earthly Bedlamite. ..” (H16: 189, 195).

Emerson believed, at least theoretically, in human perfectibility; Poe plainly stated that he did not, in letters written in July, 1844 to James Russell Lowell and Thomas Holley Chivers (O1: 256-260). In the letter to Chivers (10 July 1844), Poe defined “spirit” as simply infinitely refined “matter,” thus taking a philosophical position that Emerson ridiculed, though without reference to Poe, of course, in “Experience,” published later that same year.(10)

According to Mabbott, “most of Poe’s numerous references to Coleridge, Kant, Carlyle, and Emerson make fun of what he considered vagueness, obscurity, or confusion of style” (M2: 633, n13). It is necessary to point out, however, that Poe believed in a Transcendentalism of his own,(11) one involving acceptance of the fact of evil as a positive reality. He told Chivers, in the letter previously cited: “You mistake me in supposing I dislike the transcendentalists — it is only the pretenders and sophists among them.” In a letter of 17 March 1845, to one J. Hunt, he also referred to “the burlesque philosophy, which the Bostonians have adopted, supposing it to be Transcendentalism” (O1: 284). Poe obviously thought that his own cosmology, as expressed in “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) and Eureka, was a model of philosophical precision and clarity, with none of the ambiguity and obscurity he found in “Transcendentalism.” [page 119:]

III

I propose that “Ligeia,” published in September, 1838, two years to the month after Emerson’s Nature (1836), can be profitably read as a satirical portrait of Emersonian Transcendentalism, as expressed in that book. Perhaps it would be best to begin with the “Glanvill” epigraph, the source of which, according to Mabbott, “has never been found” (M2: 331n) Mabbott suggests that “Poe may have made it up”; Poe himself had written in 1844 that “‘misapplication of quotations is clever, and has a capital effect when well done”’ (M2: 335n)

If the epigraph is apocryphal, Poe may have meant to produce a close parallel to certain passages in Emerson, but disguised what he was doing through “misapplication” achieved by attribution to Joseph Glanvill:

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. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will. [italics mine]

“‘A man,”’ Emerson wrote, “‘is a god in ruins . . . . the dwarf of himself’.”(12) As he becomes spiritually enlightened, he sees that, although “The world proceeds from the same spirit as the body of man . . . . it differs from the body in one important respect. It is not, like that, now subjected to the human will” (p. 31). Yet:

The exercise of the Will or the lesson of power is taught in every event . . . . he [man] is learning the secret, that he can reduce under his will, not only particular events, but great classes, nay the whole series of events, and so conform all facts to his character . . . . with every thought, does his kingdom stretch over things, until the world becomes, at last, only a realized will, — the double of the man. (p. 20) [italics mine]

Man eventually perceives God in himself, the basis, as Emerson wrote later, of true “self-reliance.” As we become more spiritual:

We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man, that the dread universal essence . . . is that for which all things exist . . . that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present . . . [it] does not act [page 120:] upon us from without . . . but spiritually, or through ourselves. Therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us . . . . As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inspire the infinite, by being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. (pp. 30-31)

If my surmise is correct, Poe achieved a double-edged irony by attributing an Emersonian hyperbole to Glanvill, who insisted in his writings on the reality of evil. For Emerson, evil was, philosophically considered, simply the absence of good — the only reality — and therefore nonbeing, “nonentity,” as he put it in “The Divinity School Address” (1838; Whicher, p. 103). For Glanvill, however, disbelief in the reality of evil — in witchcraft, ghosts, and evil spirits, for instance — logically demanded a disbelief also in good spirits, including God. For him, disbelief in the reality of evil was a coward’s back door to atheism, hidden under the guise of optimism. He details his argument in A Philosophical Endeavour towards the Defense of the Being of Witches and Apparitions (1666), best known in the posthumous edition titled Saducismus Triumphatus (1681). As the latter title indicates, Glanvill saw “Sadduceeism Triumphant” through disbelief in evil. The Sadducees were important adversaries of Christ who disbelieved, among other doctrines, in the Resurrection and the existence of angels. Thus Poe may have attributed an Emersonian doctrine to a man who would have regarded it as a damnable heresy.

Under Ligeia’s tutelage, Poe’s narrator was studying the “mysteries of. . . transcendentalism.” Though Mabbott identifies this as a general reference, meaning merely “belief in intuitive knowledge” (M2: 333, n 18), the story’s parallels with passages in Nature may indicate that the term is actually a speck reference to Emersonian Transcendentalism.

In the passage from Nature quoted above, Emerson asserts that the spiritual man can “conform all facts to his character” [italics mine]. Such a sweeping classification, all facts, it might have occurred to Poe, included death. He might have wondered how a Transcendentalist, supported by his reassuring philosophy, would actually confront death, the King of Terrors. Emerson suggests, after all, that as he catches sight of the eternal principles on which the Universe is built:

No man fears age or misfortune or death, in their serene company, for he is transported out of the district of [page 121:] change. Whilst we behold unveiled the nature of Justice and Truth, we learn the difference between the absolute and the conditional or relative. We apprehend the absolute. As it were, for the first time, we exist. We become immortal, for we learn that time and space are relations of matter; that, with a perception of truth, or a virtuous will, they have no affinity. (p. 27)

Poe’s narrator speaks of his “astonishment” at Ligeia’s fierce resistance to death, a resistance which he found a “pitiable spectacle” because “[t]here had been much in her stern nature to impress me with the belief that, to her, death would have come without its terrors; — but not so.”

Poe appears deliberately to have taken literally Emerson’s metaphorical affirmation of mortal man’s superiority to death in order to make Transcendentalism more susceptible to satirical treatment. Thus, the narrator tries to bring Ligeia literally back from the dead, in the process betraying his presumptuous desire to arrogate to himself the prerogative of the Almighty. Ligeia herself had shared this desire to conquer death, as indicated by her making the supposed quotation from Glanvill an incantation; as her protegé listened to her whispers on her deathbed, he writes: “My brain reeled as I hearkened, entranced, to a melody more than mortal — to assumptions and aspirations which mortality had never before known.”

Ligeia and her lover are guilty of more than presumption. Worship of God in the self (Emerson wrote that “self-reliance” is equivalent to “God-reliance”)(13) translates as self-worship, i.e., idolatry. If Ligeia represents Emerson’s Spirit, as I suggest, the narrator’s reverence and love for her is reverence and love for himself, i.e., self-reliance. Thus Ligeia’s love for him may be read as his self-worship. Indeed, he writes, as Ligeia lay dying: “For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry” [italics mine]. Later, after his marriage to Rowena, he recalls with longing Ligeia’s “lofty . . . ethereal nature [and] . . . her passionate, her idolatrous love.” Moreover, as he looks back over his life, he remarks that his first, “illomened” marriage, was, perhaps, presided over by the “spirit . . . entitled Romance . . . the wan and . . . misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt . . . .” This statement, by the way, seems to be one of the early clues that Poe is presenting a chronicle of a Romantic extremist whose intense emotional makeup (like Ligeia, he was “a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stem passion”) destroyed him.

Finally, as he looks back from the perspective of final failure, Poe’s narrator says that he and Ligeia sought “a wisdom too divinely [page 122:] precious not to be forbidden!” Apparently, Poe takes a dim view of Transcendental optimism about man’s capacity to transcend his limitations.

IV

In Nature, images of vision predominate. Emerson argues that man must learn to open “the eye of Reason” (p. 24) so that he can ultimately obtain a spiritual fulfillment — “a dominion . . . beyond his dream of God” (p. 37) — which he characterizes, in the final two words of the essay, as “perfect sight” (p. 37). In perhaps the most famous passage, Emerson describes his mystical sense of union with God in terms of a striking visual image:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith . . . . Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me. (p. 8)

And, as an instance of “the sublime” in Nature which ought to awaken “reverence” in man, Emerson suggests the stars:

[I]f a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime . . . . every night come out these preachers of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (p. 7)

It is not the stars alone, however, which have a spiritual significance to the spiritual man: “. . . all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence” (p. 7). This idea is restated later in the essay: “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common” (p. 35).

Now, Ligeia’s eyes are her most noticeable physical characteristic, and the narrator feels a reverence, an awe, when gazing into them. Their extraordinary size is emphasized, almost to absurdity, as he calls them “large and luminous orbs.” Significantly, “those large, those shining, those divine orbs . . . . became to [him] twin stars of Leda. . .” [italics mine]. Their indefinable meaning, he says, lies in their inscrutable “expression,” a word which, he suggests, is the best he [page 123:] can do to convey the true significance of Ligeia’s eyes. They represent “the spiritual” element in her nature [italics mine]. Furthermore, in terms of the comparison with Emerson, the narrator, in turning from his contemplation of the star-like eyes of Ligeia, finds the sense of reverence they evoke in him aroused also as he gazes “in[to] the commonest objects of the universe,”14 in which he sees “a circle of analogies to that [“spiritual”] expression.” Emerson had insisted that there are “relations in all objects,” that “analogies . . . are constant, and pervade nature.” Consequently, “man is an analogist” (p. 16).

Emerson also insists that when he speaks of the spiritual significance of Nature, he does not mean any particular object, however beautiful, but “the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects” (p. 7) [italics mine]. Individual natural forms may be “agreeable to the eye” (p. 11), but it is the “general grace diffused over nature” as a whole (p. 11) which gives it its impact. If “particular objects are mean and unaffecting, the landscape which they compose, is round and symmetrical” (p. 11). Note, too, that Emerson’s paean to the stars does not focus on a star, or even a few stars, but on the whole visible panoply of the heavens, which he calls “the city of God” (p. 7). For Emerson, “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms, — the totality of nature . . . . Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace” (p. 14).

Obviously, a satirist could mock Emerson’s view of the spiritual significance of Nature by insisting too particularly on a spiritual aura in specifically located aspects of the natural world rather than in “the totality of nature.” Poe seems to have used this device, the reductio ad absurdum, in “Ligeia.” The narrator says:

I found, in the commonest objects of the universe, a circle of analogies to that expression [in Ligeia’s eyes]. I mean to say that . . . I derived, from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I felt always aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs . . . . I recognized it . . . sometimes in the survey of a rapidly-growing vine — in the contemplation of a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water. I have felt it in the ocean; in the falling of a meteor. I have felt it in the glances of unusually aged people. And there are one or two stars in heaven — (one especially, a star of the sixth magnitude, double and changeable, to be found near the large star in Lyra) in a telescopic scrutiny of which I have been made aware of the feeling. [page 124:]

His list is obviously arbitrary. Why would not a “slowly-growing vine” arouse the sentiment? Why not the glances of infants, as well as those of “unusually aged people”? How can one select “one or two stars in heaven” from Emerson’s blazing “city of God” (p. 7) and declare that those stars — and only those — fill one with reverence? It is the multitude of the heavenly lights, as innumerable as the sands on the seashore, which intensifies their beauty and fills the observer with awe.

As I have noted, Poe, with some justice, denounced Emerson for his obscurity. Having essentially arrogated to himself the definition of God, Emerson then insisted that he could not actually verbally define what he meant:

Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages. That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions, but when man has worshipped him intellectually, the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the great organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it. (p. 30)

Poe’s Transcendentalist narrator admits that, though he felt a sentiment of awe aroused in him by the contemplation of Ligeia’s eyes and “the commonest objects of the universe” as well, he could not explain what he meant: “not the more could I define that sentiment, or analyze, or even steadily view it.” As Poe later remarked of Emerson, to whom is such an obscure philosophy a benefit?

If Ligeia represents Emerson’s “Spirit,” the highest essence of “Nature,” may not the narrator’s list of specific aspects of the natural world that fill him with awe constitute a series of “apparition[s] of God (i.e., Ligeia] . . . . through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it”?

For Emerson, “Spirit” was the “universal soul within or behind [man’s] individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason . . .” (p. 15). The “Spirit” is God, and thus the possessor of omniscience. This gives point to the narrator’s description of Ligeia’s boundless and unequalled knowledge — she had “traversed . . . successfully, all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science” as well as both ancient and modern languages, in which the narrator had never found her at fault. As Emerson suggested that the true “lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still [page 125:] truly [correctly]adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood” (p. 7) [italics mine], Poe’s narrator indicates that “I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage” [italics mine]. Without Ligeia, he says, “I was but as a child groping benighted. Her presence, her readings alone, rendered vividly luminous the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed.” Ligeia, then, represents not only the Divine Mind, but, as the spiritual aspect of Nature, she is the expositor of that mind as well. Emerson, significantly, says that Nature’s “serene order is inviolable by us. It is therefore, to us, the present expositor of the divine mind. It is a fixed point whereby we may measure our departure” from God (p. 31) [italics mine].

The famous “transparent eye-ball” passage in Nature, a key section, is paralleled, in a significant respect, in Ligeia’s utterance of the key “Glanvill” passage immediately after the narrator repeats the poem, “The Conqueror Worm,” to her. In Emerson’s recollection of his divine frenzy, he recalls that he feels “uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (p. 8) [italics mine]. Ligeia shrieks: “‘O God! O Divine Father! — shall these things be undeviatingly so? — shall this Conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee’?” [italics mine](15) The lady then goes on to repeat the “Glanvill” passage.

It might be appropriate at this point to remember that the narrator in “The Raven,” like his counterpart in “Ligeia,” has lost a beloved woman, and has sought to recall her from the dead. Just as the story’s narrator has “assumptions and aspirations which mortality had never before known,” so the poem’s persona is “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” as he half-fearfully hopes, before seeing the raven, that the lost Lenore has returned to him (M1: 364-369). Poe suggests clearly in “The Philosophy of Composition” that the narrator of “The Raven” became mad through “mournful and never-ending remembrance” of the lost Lenore; i.e., he suggests that it is madness to refuse to accept one’s mortal limitations. The narrator of “Ligeia,” as noted earlier, admits his own derangement during the events he recalls (H14: 193-208).

The emphasis in the story on the narrator’s opium addiction may be designed to make it easier to hold him up to ridicule. Poe prided himself on his logical powers, and he no doubt thought that the use of opium to stimulate the imagination (as detailed in DeQuincey’s [page 126:] Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which Poe thought was Coleridge’s work) was dangerous nonsense; in a word, just one step short of insanity.

Moreover, I doubt that Poe himself put any stock in the idea of reincarnation or metempsychosis. I therefore believe that they err who read “Ligeia” literally and who see the “recall” of Ligeia’s spirit as real — and as a triumph.(16) Poe’s inserting the implication of reincarnation into this tale makes the Transcendentalist easier to make a fool of. In “Morella,” too, the idea is used, with the narrator suggesting that his deceased wife is reincarnated as his daughter. Poe had a logical mind, and would not such possibilities, perhaps, occur to him as sure to create universal confusion and chaos, and, to borrow a sober comment of Emerson’s (in “Experience”) on the effect of murder, “a horrible jangle and confounding of all relations” (Whicher, p. 270)? Perhaps Poe’s attitude toward reincarnation was like that of Hawthorne toward “spiritualism.” Hawthorne believed that such a doctrine, if true, would, so to speak, make scrambled eggs of this world and the next. He writes: “I cannot consent to let Heaven and Earth, this world and the next, be beaten up together like the white and yolk of an egg.”(17)

To return to “Ligeia,” I conclude by citing another passage as a striking parallel to one in Nature, specifically, to the concluding statement of that essay. This resonance, like the one discussed above in connection with Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball” passage, seems particularly compelling. Emerson writes:

As when the summer comes from the south, the snow-banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path,* and carry with it the beauty it visits . . . . The kingdom of man over nature . . . a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God, — he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight. [italics mine]

While Ligeia lived to aid him in his “metaphysical investigation,” the narrator recalls:

With how vast a triumph — with how vivid a delight — with how much of all that is ethereal in hope — did I feel, as she bent over me in studies but little sought — but less known,that delicious vista [Emerson: “beauty”] by slow degrees [Emerson: “gradually”] expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path,* I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely [page 127:] precious [Emerson: “perfect sight”] not to be forbidden! [italics mine]

Thus, I believe that in “Ligeia” Poe focused an attack directly on Emerson’s Nature, demonstrating his skeptical assessment of Emersonian Transcendentalism. He seems clearly to have regarded Emerson’s belief that man could achieve “a dominion . . . beyond his dream of God” as simply a presumptuous reaching for a “forbidden . . . wisdom,” which would end in madness and despair.


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NOTES

1.  James Schroeter, “A Misreading of Poe’s ‘Ligeia’,” PMLA, 76(1961), 397406; John Lauber, “‘Ligeia’ and Its Critics: A Plea for Literalism,” SSF, 4(1966), 28-32; rpt. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. William L. Howarth (Englewood Cliffs, 1971), pp. 73-77. Mabbott’s views are expressed as part of his commentary on “Ligeia,” M2: 307-308, 334. All references to “Ligeia” are based on this edition. I am indebted for several additional insights to one of my recent graduate students, Mrs. Maria Flynn, a resident of Mayfield, Kentucky.

2.  Roy P. Basler, “The Interpretation of ‘Ligeia’,” CE, 5(1944), 363-372; rpt. Robert Regan, ed., Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, 1967), pp. 51-63; James W. Gargano, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’: Dream and Destruction,” CE 23(1962), 337-342; Floyd Stovall, “The Conscious Art of Edgar Allan Poe,” CE 24(1963), 417-421; rpt. Regan, pp. 172-178; G. R. Thompson, “‘Proper Evidences of Madness’: American Gothic and the Interpretation of ‘Ligeia’;’ ESQ, 18(1972), 30-49.

3.  I had noted this in an unpublished essay completed in 1970, but Thompson works out the implications of this view of the letter to Cooke in detail, in the article cited in the previous note. The exchange of letters with Cooke can be found in H17: 49-54. See also O1: 117-119; 2: 686-688.

4.  Mabbott makes only a brief notation on Dickens as source (M2: 306). The relationship of Dickens’s piece to Poe’s story is discussed in detail, and convincingly, by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Dickens and Poe: Pickwick and ‘Ligeia’,” PoeS 6(1973), 14-16. Fisher interprets the tale as a madman’s delusion, and thus supplements the views of Schroeter, Lauber, Mabbott, and others.

5.  Poe to Brooks, 4 September 1838 — O1: 111-113, esp. 112.

6.  See Ostrom’s note to the letter cited in my previous note: 1: 112-113. [page 128:]

7.  O2: 688-690. He was soliciting a “puff” from Irving on “William Wilson,” to be used in advertising a forthcoming collection of his Tales.

8.  See Tales of a Traveller (New York, 1894), pp. 59-66.

9.  Other commentators emphasize Poe’s tendency to rework and elaborate for his major stories motifs introduced earlier in his own slighter pieces. See Ruth Leigh Hudson, “Poe Recognizes ‘Ligeia’ as His Masterpiece,” English Studies in Honor of James Southall Wilson, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, 1951), pp. 35-44. See also the editor’s introduction to Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies, ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (Baltimore, 1978), pp. 5, 10.

10.  For Emerson’s mockery of this idea, see “Experience,” in Stephen E. Whicher, ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology (Boston, 1957), p. 258.

11.  This point is made by Eric W. Carlson in “Poe’s Vision of Man,” Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Oh., 1972), pp. 7-8. For an extensive treatment of Poe’s views on Transcendentalism, see Ottavio M. Casale, “Poe on Transcendentalism,” ESQ, 14(1968), 85-97. Two studies of Poe’s affinity with Transcendentalism are useful: Arnold Smithline, “Eureka: Poe as Transcendentalist,” ESQ, 11(1965), 25-28; Patrick F. Quinn, “Poe’s Eureka and Emerson’s Nature,” ESQ, 9(1963), 4-7. Quinn also discusses differences between Poe’s thought and that of Emerson. For a study of Poe’s story as a commentary on the “Germanizing” of English Romanticism, see Clark Griffith, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics,” first published in UTQ, 24(1954), 8-25; rpt. Howarth, pp. 63-72. Full treatment of this subject, including analyses of satire upon human perfectibility in the tales, occurs in Richard A. Fusco, “Poe and the Perfectibility of Man” (Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Mississippi, 1982); see also his “Poe and the Perfectibility of Man,” PoeS, 19(1986), 1-6.

12.  All references to Nature are to the 1836 text, the one available to Poe, as reprinted in Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, eds., Emerson’sNature” — Origin, Growth, Meaning (New York and Toronto, 1969), pp. 5-37. This reference is to p. 33. Other references to pagination will be incorporated parenthetically in my text.

13.  He stated this in “The Fugitive Slave Law,” a lecture he delivered in New York City on 7 March 1854: The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1929), p. 1165.

14.  That he does not feel any reverence at all for Rowena — another human being and his wife — indicates the depth of his [page 129:] depravity and madness. He is willing callously to deprive her of life itself to further his delusion.

15.  Was Poe varying the phrasing slightly for subtlety, to avoid being a bit too close to Emerson’s phrasing? In the 1856 edition of Nature, the phrase was changed to the more common “part or parcel.” Alfred Ferguson thinks this was a printer’s error, noting that it was changed back to the original in 1870 (see Emerson’sNature” — Origin, Growth, Meaning, p. 67). But both James E. Cabot and Edward Waldo Emerson adopted the 1856 variant for their editions of Emerson’s complete works: respectively, The Riverside Edition (1883-1893), and The Centenary Edition (1903-1904). See The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 1: 288. Whicher’s widely-used anthology cited in this paper for other essays is based on the Centenary Edition. Most anthologies, in fact, reprint the Centenary Edition text.

16.  Several critics see the ending of the story as an indication that the narrator has achieved the oneness with the divine which Poe posits in Eureka as man’s ultimate destiny. Carlson, for instance, in the essay cited in rill, thinks that in “Ligeia” and several of Poe’s other stories, “the poetic intellect . . . achieve[s] an anunement with the Spirit Divine” (p. 15). Casale (p. 95) says Poe “‘immersed’ Ligeia in the kind of transcendentalism he approved.” My conclusion is precisely the opposite.

17.  See The English Notebooks by Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Randall Stewart (1941; rpt. New York, 1962), p. 617.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Poe's Ligeia: Debts to Irving and Emerson (Jerry A. Herndon, 1990)