Text: Eric W. Carlson, “Poe on the Soul of Man,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1973


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It has been a great pleasure for me to spend this weekend in Baltimore, not only to meet members of the Poe Society but to see the fine Poe Exhibit so beautifully arranged by Mr. Hart and his staff. And I feel greatly honored to be your guest speaker on this commemorative occasion, the fiftieth anniversary of the Poe Society of Baltimore. In the paper I am about to read, my purpose is not consciously to “defend” Poe against his critics. Instead, by generous quotation, I hope that Poe will be able to speak his own thoughts, make his own case, if any needs to be made, my business being to draw a “fragmentary curve” to reveal Poe’s own views on the soul of man. If I burden any of you with undue detail and documentation, it is because I believe, with J. Mitchell Morse, author of The Irrelevant English Teacher, that “intellectual perception does not deaden emotional response; often the emotional response depends on the intellectual perception.”


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As long ago as 1931, Professor Floyd Stovall published an article on “Poe as a Poet of Ideas.” In 1959 and 1962 Richard Wilbur in three essays offered his theory of dream imagery in Poe’s work as symbolizing the subconscious of the poet’s creative process. As far as I know, Poe has not yet been discussed as a poet of the soul.

In his book on Poe as journalist and critic, however, Robert Jacobs does make the statement that Poe demanded not art for art’s sake but “Art for the soul’s sake.” Vague as they may sound, these words go to the heart of the matter; for in this age of controversy between the Skinnerian behaviorists and the humanists, that matter is quite crucial, especially if we have entered a so-called post-Freudian, post-Industrial period.

Two of the latest books dealing with our changing climate of opinion are René Dubos’ A God Within (Scribner’s, 1972) and Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (Doubleday, 1972). Both writers advocate the new counterculture as a solution to, or escape from, our post-industrial society, which they regard as a wasteland of lives devitalized by feelings of nihilism, alienation, and absurdity, by depersonalized science and religion, and by a technocracy which thrives at the expense of beauty. In broad outline, this diagnosis is very much like the one Poe published in 1841, and so is the prescription. To recover our “visionary powers and energies of transcendence,” Roszak, like Poe, advocates a new religion, a new romantic sense of life, to bring about “a turning point in the deepest seat of consciousness.” A rhapsodic, transcendent “sacramental consciousness” can be achieved, Roszak maintains, only through myth, dream, participation in nature, religious renewal, and the “symbolic play” of language.

In the past ten years we have witnessed a widespread interest in mystical religion and philosophy, transcendental meditation, varieties of psychedelic experience, ESP and other psychic phenomena; in the occult and in primitive cultures; in the Black experience with its special emphasis on “soul”; in psychotherapy, sensitivity training, and the human potential movement; in humanistic ­[page 4:] or Third-Force psychology, with its “peak experiences” and “self-actualization”; and in the Women’s Liberation movement, with its new psychology and rationale for women’s sex and psyche — possibly of first importance in understanding Poe’s deep and mysterious women characters, who are far more powerful than his men. Simply to read such a list is to sense that a certain semantic barrier has come down, and that some new pattern of ideas, feelings, and values has emerged, making it possible for many readers to approach Poe and other Romantic writers with a new interest and seriousness. And we need to be reminded, too, that Poe lived in the Heyday of Spiritualism — the title of a recent volume by Slater Brown — a period of experiment in the human psychic potential engaging the serious interest of scientists, clergy, and psychologists, as well as the general public.

In the “symbolic play” of Poe’s language, certain patterns of words and images, and associated themes, recur to the point where it is possible to identify three major phases or perspectives in his work as a whole. Although I have defined these stages in an earlier, now published, lecture, in this talk today I shall follow the same three-part analysis again as being the best approach to the nature and significance of the soul in Poe’s writings.


The Lost Eden

Not mutually exclusive — to some extent they overlap and even interact — these three periods are usefully distinguished. The first, characteristic of the years 1827 to 1831, is marked by a Neoplatonic and Pastoral vision taking the form of “dreams” or “memories” of a lost paradise or Eden. In Eureka, Youth is said to be “peculiarly haunted by such dreams; yet never mistaking them for dreams.” In the language of Romantic myth, the first vision is a Memory of the Golden Age “when mirth was a word unknown, so solemnly deeptoned was happiness — holy, august and blissful days, when blue rivers ran undammed, between hills unhewn, into far forest solitudes, primaeval, odorous and unexplored.” This vision is a “holy dream,” of an “evergreen and radiant Paradise . . . the circumscribed Eden” of the poet’s making. It is Al Aaraaf, the realm of Platonic Beauty. Symbolically, it is also the flower-bedecked and richly perfumed isle ­[page 5:] of Zante, and the Valley of Many-Coloured Grass, where Eleonora and her cousin dwelt. It is the classical Helen symbolizing the beauty of the soul — “Psyche, from the regions which / Are Holy-Land!” — an ideal that has brought the lost wanderer back to “his own native shore,” his essential self, his soul. However, Tamerlane, the young poet and conqueror, was not so fortunate; for his ambition and pride, he lost both love and creative power.

The reality of this “dream within a dream” lies in the power of its ideal values — Innocence, Joy, Love, and Beauty — the haunting Memory of a lost Eden — deep in some Collective Unconscious? — represents the potential of harmony of self with nature, of self with soul (or psyche), and of soul with some transcendent, Platonic Beauty. Although aspiring spirits among men may be touched by Beauty in the “Fairy-Land” of the imagination, the immemorial dream-ideal is threatened or destroyed by passing time, by the illusory reality of appearances, by ambition, and by passion (as distinguished from ideal love).


In this first period, Poe’s Edenic and Neoplatonic vision of Man served both as source of inspiration and as a reminder of loss. The “mythopoeic mentality” of the Jungian memory-dream poems carried over into the poems of 1831. In that transition year, Poe published not only the affirmative “Romance,” “Israfel,” and “To Helen,” but also “The Sleeper,” “Lenore,” “The City in the Sea,” and “The Valley of Unrest.” Beginning with the latter two, there followed, for a period of approximately ten years, 1831-1841, a number of works that might be called Existentialist Fables of the Human Condition. Some few of these, within a personal frame, view death as a comfort to the soul, even a kind of transfiguration. In “The Sleeper,” for instance, a grieving lover finds consolation and identification in the peace of soul symbolized by the motionless, undisturbed Irene, beyond the reach of life’s anxieties and agonies. In “The City in the Sea,” one of Poe’s finest poems, the scale is larger: the fate of man and civilization imaged by the silent, lifeless depths of the sea where the beautiful arabesque city, not unlike the Domain of Arnheim, hovers as an architectural vision before passing into oblivion. Here silence and stasis eloquently symbolize the ultimate destiny of the highest achievements of the past. ­[page 6:]

Except for “Shadow — A Parable” (1835), in this period there seems to be no serious treatment of the theme of psychic continuity. Compared to the earlier “The Spirits of the Dead” (1827), this “Shadow” is a more awe-inspiring power; “vague, and formless, and indefinite,” it speaks in the tones of “many thousand departed friends.” If that seems gratuitous or put on for Gothic effect, compare Poe’s poem with this Journal entry of Emerson’s: “Talked with Reed and Worcester last ev’g [[evening]] . . . God, we agreed, was the communication between us and the spirits departed or present.”

A starker perspective is apparent in “Silence” (1837) and in “Sonnet — Silence” (1840); in each of these death as a finality tests man’s courage to be. Such a testing of the spirit of Man found expression also in the two sea tales in each of which the hero is caught in the abyss, or Void, of the maelstrom, with seemingly No Exit. But in these stories the hero overcomes and transforms his terror through a will to survive, a sense of wonder and awe, and an intense “curiosity” to know the ultimate truth of the human condition. In this psycho-ontological experience, death is less a finality than a boundary condition that leads to a discovery. In “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833), death is the price of the discovery; in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841), the revelation transforms the black walls and the abyss into a wonderful “manifestation of God’s power” and the moonlight into “a flood of golden glory.” And yet, says the narrator, “the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of that mist I dare not attempt to describe,” it was that awesome. At any rate, there was no reply or recognition from above, assuming God to be in his heaven. In this and the other cosmic fables, Man seems an alien, fatefully in but not of the Universe — a major theme in the Existentialist literature of our own time.

Among readers today, a goodly number find Poe’s existentialism of this period a new and exciting discovery. True, most of Poe’s writings between 1831 and 1841 embody this theme, making him seem very modern, as well as placing him among the foremost literary conquerors of the Void during the nineteenth century. Even so, a strong qualification is in order: If Man stands alone, often an alienated soul confronted by Nothingness, his terror, his “fear and trembling,” rarely leads to Absurdism, the ­[page 7:] view that life is essentially without meaning or purpose and hence, in the philosophical sense, “Absurd.” In each of the sea tales the psychic mariner makes an illuminative “discovery” of the Unconditional but that discovery includes not only the abyss and the primal scream, but also a sense of awe in the presence of God’s power and beauty. This suggestion of some transcendent reality should give us pause in labeling Poe as an out-and-out ironist or absurdist. For Poe, God is not dead.

In these cosmic allegories dramatizing the destiny of Man, Poe antedated Melville’s Moby Dick by ten years or more. Poe’s protagonist is driven by a will to survive but not, like Ahab, by a will to power. Poe’s hero is redemed by his will to know; sensitive to the snow-whiteness, the blank “silence,” and “the blackness of darkness,” he survives and transcends the catastrophic in a way that makes Ishmael’s breeching out of the “black bubble” of the whirlpool of death a natural sequel to Poe’s epic narratives. These symbolic sea voyages are not merely literal or melodramatic catastrophes; they too have their allegorical, moral, and anagogic dimensions of meaning. When the mariner’s old mates and “the merry fishermen of Lofoden” refuse to hear about the descent into the maelstrom, they deny themselves their “primordial consciousness” of the nature of existence.

The Existentialist themes of man condemned by inexorable death, time, Nothingness, and an indifferent or malevolent God reappear variously in “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Conqueror Worm” (1843), and “The Premature Burial” (1844). In the last-named, “all was void, and black, and silent, and Nothing became the universe. Total annihilation could be no more.” But in “The Pit and the Pendulum” the will to survive is rewarded by the outstretched hand of General Lasalle. Otherwise, throughout this tale, too, man is seen as condemned by man’s inhumanity to man, almost overcome by a “sickness unto death” in his confrontation with the Abyss. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” also 1842, the idea of mortality interposes impressively when the ebony clock tolls out each hour as the gay masquerade of life whirls madly on, indifferent to Time and Death.

The Murder Tales

Thus, between 1831 and 1841 or 1844, Poe’s writings depict ­[page 8:] the Spirit of Man as confronted by death — either as a finality or as a “discovery.” Shortly thereafter, during the early and mid-forties, the murder stories were published. More than any others, these are the writings that have identified Poe with the pathological and the psychotic, and thus as lacking humanity and soul.

As studies of the demonic self and the pathology of crime and confession, these tales give ample evidence of breakdown in what Nathaniel Branden in The Disowned Self (1971) calls “psycho-epistemological functioning.” The tales themselves do not reveal the root causes or background of the disorientation and violence. In his “Colloquy of Monos and Una,” however, Poe set forth a cultural and psychological diagnosis of the sick society of his day. He described it as a time of “diseased commotion, moral and physical.” He saw “man’s general condition at this epoch” as marked by “general misrule” resulting from false ideas about “universal equality”; by “huge smoking cities” and other blemishes of ugly industrialization; and by the “leading evil Knowledge” — i.e., abstract rationalism which, along with the mechanical arts, has led to “the blind neglect” of “Taste” in the schools. As a result, man lost his “sentiment of the natural” and, experiencing a kind of cultural shock or “future shock,” as we call it, suffered acute psychic conflict and fragmentation. At this time, too, Poe described the “world of mind” as a delicate balance of intellect, taste, and moral sense. Anything that upset the delicate balance would disrupt the whole self.

Overtly tales of horror in their violence and sadism, these stories are really studies in the soul of man. In “William Wilson” (1839), the first of the group, the protagonist’s identity crisis alienates his “moral sense,” which appears as the double. This “other” is neither a superego nor an id, but, to judge by the following passage, a latent, primal Self reminiscent of the dream “memories” of Poe’s first period:

. . . I discovered, or fancied I discovered, in his accent, in his air, and general appearance, a something which first startled, and then deeply interested me, by bringing to mind dim visions of my earliest infancy — wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn. I cannot better describe the sensation which oppressed me than by saying that I ­[page 9:] could with difficulty shake off the belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some epoch very long ago — some point of the past even infinitely remote.

There follow two glimpses of this subliminal self, one during Wilson’s night-time visit to the dormitory room of the alter ego, the other at Eton when after a night of dissipation, in the “faint light” of the “feeble dawn,” he put his foot “over the threshold” and again encountered “William Wilson.” This time, the stranger’s “singular, low . . . whispered syllables . . . came with a thousand memories of by-gone days, and struck upon my soul with the shock of a galvanic battery. Ere I could recover the use of my senses he was gone.” By some Jungian intuition into the dynamics of the psyche, Poe here implies a shock of recognition of that authentic self which lies deeper than man’s mean egoism. So understood, “William Wilson” becomes far more than a transparent allegory of Conscience. As a symbolic drama, it is a study, rather, in the psychology of IAMness: The Search for the Self Beyond the Ego, which is the title of a recent work by Ian Kent and William Nichols (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972).

“The Imp of the Perverse” stresses the point that perversity in man might seem “a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.” In “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” both 1843, where the inner conflict is clearly psychotic, the “imp of the perverse” asserts itself as a subconscious need to confess, as if the murderer’s heavy burden of guilt might be lightened thereby. In the most depraved, Poe seems to say, the moral sense finally cannot be denied. If the criminal in these tales is compelled by a tell-tale sense of guilt as an expression of the deeper soul, then we have reason to reject the old notions that Poe’s writings lack “morality” or “heart.”

Although there is no such confession in “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not Montresor’s telling the story fifty years after the event some sort of confessional act, some attempt to unburden the soul? Also, when Montresor remarks “My heart grew sick on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour,” we sense that it is more than dampness that sickened his heart. ­[page 10:]

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the existentialist condition of Nothingness seems to be causally linked with the narrator’s compulsion to kill the old man. The narrator confesses that he too, like the old man, had sat up in bed listening, night after night, to the death watches in the wall. He too knew the groan that welled up from the bottom of the soul “because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him . . .” Not only death, but “the dreadful silence of that old house,” the dreadful emptiness of life, the universal Nothingness, the Nada. The wide-open, dull blue, hideously veiled vulture eye of the old man symbolized for the narrator the death and despair of his own spirit. Not until he had destroyed the eye, the heart, and the body that held both, could he feel a momentary relief from his néant-engendered terror of soul.


The Transcendental Psyche

Poe’s central and climactic vision of man may be called his Psychal Transcendentalism, dominant from 1835 to 1839, and during his final period, from 1841 to 1849.

Among Poe’s most profound and powerful stories are his tales of psychic conflict. “In them,” Richard Wilbur concluded in his 1959 lecture, “Poe broke wholly new ground, and they remain the best things of their kind in our literature . . . and I think he will have something to say to us as long as there is civil war in the palaces of men’s minds.” These tales include “Berenice” and “Morella,” both 1835, “Ligeia,” 1838, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson,” both 1839. Insofar as I have a thesis concerning these tales, it is this: The central theme is Man’s search for his soul, and through the death of the “ordinary life,” the discovery of his psychic potential is realized in a rebirth of the unified and creative self. Poe’s major theme is not death, annihilation, or self-destruction, as D. H. Lawrence, Allen Tate, and their followers have maintained. Nor is Poe essentially a Romantic Ironist. Granted, in Poe’s comic fiction there is much irony and satire, most of it social; and in the second-period Existentialist fables, an ironic scepticism and “absurdism” is partially suggested by man’s seeming fate at the hands of a “silent” Universe or God. But at best, Poe’s irony, ­[page 11:] like Emerson’s skepticism, functions as a minor motif in the thematic design as a whole.

To label this central vision Psychal Transcendentalism is to combine two of Poe’s own key terms. On July 10, 1844, Poe wrote to Dr. Chivers: “You mistake me in supposing I dislike the transcendentalists — it is only the pretenders and sophists among them,” recommending “Mesmeric Revelation” as a “somewhat detailed” article of his own “faith.” In “Mesmeric Revelation,” also 1844, the hypnotized Vankirk explains that through the “painful metamorphosis” of death man passes from the “rudimental” or “ordinary” life into the “ultimate” life of “nearly unlimited perception” and “unlimited comprehension.” Such a transformation, of being “born again” into consciousness and unity of being, had been described by the “angelic” Monos in his colloquy with Una, written three years earlier. Two years later, in 1846, using the same term, “psychal impressions,” which he had applied to Vankirk’s psychic reports, Poe described his own “sleepwaking” visions in the Marginalia essay on “psychal fancies.” The ecstasy of these visions “is of a character supernal to the Human Nature — is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world . . . as if the five senses were supplanted by five myriad others alien to mortality.” / “They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquility. . . .” And yet such visions may well be “common to all mankind.”

In her 1969 article on Poe’s three “mesmeric tales” (of which “Mesmeric Revelation” is one), Doris V. Falk characterized this trance-like state as operating “within the mind as a unifying and illuminating force,” hence psychedelic rather than psychological or moral. Poe’s writings, she notes, are filled with trance states induced by fever, pain, hunger, drugs, sensory deprivation, as well as hypnotism. Such intensified awareness makes possible heightened analytical power, poetic inspiration, and spiritual self-realization.

When in 1844 Poe described his “Mesmeric Revelation” as a “somewhat detailed” article of his “faith,” he was well along in defining his basic ideas about life and art. He had published “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” and his letters on matter and spirit, and within a few years would publish “The Power of Words” and Eureka. In his review of Thomas Moore’s Alciphron (1840) he ­[page 12:] had adopted the term mystic “in the sense of August William Schlegel and of most other German critics” to stand for the “under current of meaning” which, with “the vast force of an accompaniment in music,” vivifies, spiritualizes, and lifts the fanciful conception into the ideal, the truly imaginative. (Such Victorian-sounding words as “spiritualizes” and “the ideal” should be understood in the context of Poe’s psychal experience, not as terms of didactic uplift or moralizing.) There followed this metaphoric variation of the same idea:

With each note of the lyre is heard a ghostly, and not always distinct, but an august and soul-exalting echo. In every glimpse of beauty presented, we catch, through long and wild vistas, dim bewildering visions of a far more ethereal beauty beyond.

If we understand “soul-exalting” to mean soul-deepening as well, and note the “wild” and “bewildering” quality of these “ethereal” visions, we shall be tuned in to the kind of “excitement” Poe had in mind when he referred to the poetic sentiment as an “elevating excitement of the soul,” on one occasion underscoring the words of the soul. To make this excitement possible, a poem must, of “psychal necessity,” be brief. Such quasi-hypnotic intensity of the auditory imagination could be sustained, in poetic experience, for only a short time, at most half an hour. It depended on a technique of cumulative and composite impressionism until the arabesque repetition of stylized or symbolic motifs produced “a definitiveness of vague and therefore of spiritual effect,” of psychal intensity, that is.

Poe’s psycho-impressionistic tales and poems depend on subtleties of style, form, and symbolism that are still being discovered. They also depend on an understanding of Poe’s ideas about life — about matter and spirit, the origin and destiny of the universe, the nature of man — his philosophic perspective, in short, as set forth not only in “Mesmeric Revelation,” but in his colloquies and in Eureka. An encouraging sign in recent Poe criticism is the emphasis placed on Eureka; a discouraging sign is the misreading and misuse of that work.

Poe’s cosmic myth and his myth of Beauty are really one myth, if Eureka is not read as an extravagant failure in cosmogony, but as a “prose poem” addressed to “dreamers” capable ­[page 13:] of poetic imagination. To find in Eureka only or mainly a metaphysic of Annihilation or “an elaborate conceit on ‘Nothingness’ ” is to ignore the extremely important ideas in the concluding pages: the concept of Divine Will; the nature of the Unity, Nothingness, or Material Nihility from which the universe was originally created, and from which it will again be reborn by the “law of periodicity,” by the “throb of the Heart Divine”; the dreams and “Memories” of youth; the idea of each soul as “in part, its own God — its own Creator”; and the two identities of Man, including an “identity with God.” Eureka ends with these words:

Think that the sense of individual entity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness — that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognise his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life — Life — Life within Life — the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.

Is this a slyly ironic hoaxer speaking? If so, why would Poe try to offset any sense of “pain” at this loss of individual identity by adding a note on this process? His note speaks of “the absorption, by each individual intelligence, of all other intelligences (that is, of the Universe) into its own. That God may become all and in all, each must become God” (Works, ed. Harrison, XVI 336). The gradual stages of this merging process are described, again without irony, at the end of “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” and the main theme of that colloquy, we should remember, is the rebirth of the individual spirit into the creative power of the angelic imagination.

To label the mind behind this cosmology as “perverse,” “ironical” or “absurdist” totally misreads Poe’s intention, it seems to me. I grant that there is much verbal and dramatic irony and even more “dark Romanticism” in Poe’s writings, but I see nothing in Eureka to justify Professor G. R. Thompson’s finding of “Romantic Irony” in that work (cf. Papers on Poe, ed. Veler. Springfield, Ohio, 1972, pp. 28-41). Any direct transmission of German “transcendental irony” as Poe’s philosophic perspective remains to be proved. (It may be that Thompson’s forthcoming ­[page 14:] book, Poe’s Romantic Irony, will offer that proof.)

In his Biblical Allusions in Poe (1928), William Mentzel Forrest succinctly stated the matter when he wrote of Eureka, “The book begins and ends with God as all in all.” In Poe’s pantheism, Forrest summarizes, the universe emanated from an eternal Essence and ultimately will be drawn back into the same Essence, repeating the cycle to eternity. According to the late Colonel Richard Gimbel, the great mathematician Albert Einstein was very much impressed by Eureka as a theory of the universe, a theory which strikes me as being similar in broad outline to that of the American astronomer Allan Sandage. If you have seen The Violent Universe, a remarkably fine TV presentation on PBS, you will remember Sandage’s statement that the universe is slowing down fast; some day the process of contraction will begin, until c. 30,000 million years from now, all the galaxies will coalesce into a new primeval fireball, from which another “big bang” may start a new period of expansion. In his commentary, Philip Morrison noted that the “big bang,” though to him a “naive” theory, has been accumulating more and more evidence in its favor.

Only in the context of these ideas on art and life can the tales of vision be understood as serious tales of psychic conflict, not as Gothic tales of “Germanism and gloom,” as Poe himself protested, nor as satires of the Gothic in the mode of German Romantic Irony. These tales are grouped by chronology (1835-1839) and by similarities in conflict, theme, and symbolic language. I shall limit myself largely to “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” as not only the most subtle and significant of these tales, but also the most controversial. “Ligeia,” the third in order of publication, has been the subject of extended critical debate. One of the older arguments has recently been revived and reprinted as part of the effort to turn Poe into a subtle comic satirist and parodist and thus to rescue him from those who naively read him as a straight “Gothicist” (which seems to mean everybody who does not agree that Poe is primarily an ironist). That argument was Clark Griffith’s contention in 1954 (U. of Toronto Q XXIV 8-25), that “Ligeia” is a burlesque and a satire because it was published shortly after “Siope” (later “Silence”) and in the same year as “Psyche Zenobia” (later “The Signora Zenobia” or “How to Write a Blackwood Article”), both of which Griffith ­[page 15:] regarded as satires of Transcendentalism, the German, New England variety, of course. “Siope” or “Silence” is “a ruthless parody of Transcendentalism,” he flatly proclaimed, without offering the slightest evidence, referring only in passing to “its Gothic background plus its inarguable irony” and “its lush prose.” No reference whatever to Forrest’s praise of “Silence” as exceptional in its Biblical rhythm, tone, and style; and no recognition of Professor Harrison’s comment that “Silence” is “perhaps Poe’s most majestic piece of prose, worthy of Jean Paul Richter in its music and magnificence.” In 1969 Alice Claudel (Ball State Univ. Forum X 66-70) attempted an analysis of “Silence” as satire, but her strained, implausible interpretation fails to convince at every essential point. As for “Psyche Zenobia,” obviously it is a burlesque, but not primarily the satire of Transcendentalism that Griffith claimed it to be; Transcendentalism receives only one tenth of Poe’s attention — no more. Nor does the satiric character of “Psyche Zenobia” justify calling “Ligeia” a sequel. The verbal echoes of “Siope” are more to the point, but out of context they prove nothing. And how accurate is Griffith when he says that “the narrator [in “Ligeia”] is pictured as a psychopath” and that in conveying the narrator’s impression of Ligeia’s eyes through a circle of analogies “Poe is slyly mocking Ligeia’s spiritual depths by comparing them to an assortment of oddly incongruous details,” and so “instantly” reminding the reader of the Transcendentalists’ use of common objects as spiritual analogues? Suppose the reader does not find the narrator a psychopath or those details incongruous?

James Schroeter’s reassertion in 1961 (PMLA LXXVI 397-406) of the traditional reading of the story put no stop to notions that the narrator is unreliable, that he himself has murdered Rowena, and that the revivification of Ligeia is a hallucination; or the notion that Ligeia never existed. So, by 1966 John Lauber (Studies in Short Fiction IV 28-32) was driven to write “A Plea for Literalism.” Countering each of the notions above, he maintained that there is no evidence of Poe’s dislike for “Gothic grotesquerie,” and the style is “necessary to the effect of the more ‘Gothic’ tales.” In brief, he concluded, “ ‘Ligeia’ makes perfect sense when read literally, and Poe gives no clear hint that it should be read otherwise. . . Symbolic readings of ‘Ligeia’ ­[page 16:] would remain possible, but to be valid they would have to be founded on the actual events of the tale,” a test which would rule out Richard Wilbur’s interpretation.

As the story opens, the narrator is buried in mystical studies; as a Poe narrator, he is characteristically hypersensitive, too “high” (though not hysterical) to have a mind for factual trivia, but vivid in his recollection of the “spiritual” Ligeia, as suggested by his description of her hair, forehead, eyes, nose, chin, teeth, and footfall, these details functioning as partial symbols in the composite impressionism of paragraphs two and three. Most hypnotic are her eyes so full, large, deep, brilliant black, and “spiritual” in expression that the narrator could convey the “sentiment” they engendered only by comparing it to his feeling in contemplating a fast-growing vine, a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water, the glances of unusually aged people, and “certain sounds from stringed instruments.” Is this “an assortment of oddly incongruous details,” as Griffith regarded them, or are they consistently suggestive of life as growth, as metamorphosis? In fact, do not most of these images symbolize Glanvill’s idea of God as the will or inner urge to self-realization — the main theme of the story?

Ligeia’s intensity is clearly that of a controlled, low-voiced trance medium, “the wild meaning” of whose “quietly uttered words” involved “assumptions and aspirations which mortality had never before known.” In these phrases as well as the allusions to “forbidden fruit, death-producing” and to “a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden,” Poe undoubtedly has reference to the transcendental or occult writings proscribed by the Church. In her psychic intensity, Ligeia is strikingly similar to “the imaginative Morella” studying the mystical German writers, specially “the wild pantheism of Fichte; the modified palingenesis of the Pythagoreans; and, above all, doctrines of Identity as urged by Schelling,” whereas by contrast, the narrator observes, “That identity which is termed personal, Mr. Locke, I think, truly defines to consist in the sameness of a rational being.” When he adds that “the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost forever, was to me — at all times, a consideration of intense interest,” one realizes that he too is aware of the difference between the rational self and the soul of man, a distinction of such ­[page 17:] supreme importance to Poe that he brought his peroration in Eureka to a conclusion with one of those haunting Memories that “sometimes pursue us even in our Manhood,” a Memory also speaking in a low voice:

These creatures [human beings] are all, too, more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak — of an identity with God.

Given her immense psychal powers, Ligeia seeks to achieve an “identity with God.” Her husband, however, being a Lockean rationalist, fails to achieve self-reliant insight into the transcendental mysteries, despite his “intense interest” in this possibility. If Ligeia symbolizes this potential in him, then her illness and death, despite “the intensity of her wild desire for life — for life — but for life,” reflect his fear and failing in his search for his soul through identity with God. But after Ligeia’s death and a month following his marriage to Rowena, the narrator begins to invoke Ligeia, whom he recalls for “her purity, her wisdom, her lofty, her ethereal nature, her passionate, idolatrous love.” First with the aid of opium, then when his “soul was awakened,” he gave himself up to “passionate waking visions of Ligeia” until with a final “shriek” of realization, he recognized “the full, and the black, and the wild eyes — of my lost — of the Lady — of the LADY LIGEIA!” In thus recovering his psychal energy, he has revivified his own spiritual integrity and depth of soul. Through his Ligeia self, he has discovered his “identity with God.”

A year after “Ligeia” came “The Fall of the House of Usher,” undoubtedly Poe’s greatest story, certainly the most complex and interesting of the tales of psychic conflict. The critical, acute condition of the split Usher Self is of course symbolized by the fissure in the outer wall of the house, which also stands for the Usher family line, destined to end with the death of Roderick and Madeline. As twins, though not identical twins, the brother and sister aptly represent at least two of the faculties that make up the “world of mind” as Poe defined it, first in 1841, and then in “The Poetic Principle” of 1848 in these words:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, ­[page 18:] Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hestitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves.

Without accepting Richard Wilbur’s hypnagogic interpretation and his equating of the narrator with the total Self, I agree that Roderick is the poetic soul in the visionary state. Madeline, however, does not seem to represent physical beauty, or the dark, evil unconscious, or Roderick’s suppressed sexuality, or simple conscience. If she symbolizes, as Roderick’s double, the very qualities and powers that are lacking in him because starved or suppressed, we might note that Roderick is described as having inherited “a peculiar sensibility of temperament”; that, though his eye was “large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison,” his “finely moulded chin” suggested “in its want of prominence, a want of moral energy”; that though he was capable of “intense mental collectedness and concentration,” his was “an excited and highly distempered ideality”; that after Madeline’s burial in the vault, his luminousness of eye “had utterly gone out” and “the once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more.” Also we note that in his room, “Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene.” If Roderick is highly endowed with sensibility, he is also clearly wanting in “vitality” and “moral energy.” In this context, “moral energy” probably relates less to conscience than to an older definition of moral: “Pert. to mind; specif., pert. to the volitional or conative nature as distinguished from the intellectual.” If one recalls Ligeia’s “intensity,” “fierce energy,” and “gigantic volition,” one senses that these tales, and “Morella” as well; are told in the same symbolic language. Certainly, if one of these is a parody or satire, the others must be also! Isn’t it far more likely that Poe intended them all as serious symbolic stories, for all their surface Gothicism?

The double death of Roderick and Madeline is not really a reunion, except as their mutual collapse from weakness might be so regarded. If Madeline has returned to “upbraid” her brother for his haste, as Roderick thinks and fears, that does not mean she ­[page 19:] has come to kill him. When she appears on the “threshold” (of his consciousness?)

. . . there did stand the lofty enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim of the terrors he had anticipated.

Isn’t it clear that on the literal level Madeline dies of her weakened, emaciated condition? Symbolically — notice the white robes, the lofty stature, the trembling and reeling of the enshrouded lady Madeline — she brings to mind the “lofty” and “ethereal nature” of another lady, “of the Lady — of the LADY LIGEIA!” In these climaxes, the similarities in vocabulary are too precise, I think, to be accidental, especially when coupled with the parallel relationships or conflicts.

To some readers, the narrator in “Ligeia” either seems to be mad from the start, or becomes mad and murders Rowena, or suffers “mad” hallucinations at the end, as might be inferred from such remarks as “there was a mad disorder in my thoughts” and “What inexpressible madness seized me with that thought?” and “I shrieked aloud.” But none of these assumptions or literal readings allows for the possibility of metaphor and the undercurrent of symbolic meaning discussed earlier. When Roderick “shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul, ‘MADMAN! MADMAN! I TELL YOU THAT SHE NOW STANDS WITHOUT THE DOOR!’ ” he shouted those words as much to himself as to his friend the narrator. For Roderick belongs to that race of madly inspired, but not really insane, visionaries that we encounter in much literature old and new. His madness or mania is that “state during which man experiences a kind of self-revelation occurring through the emergence of a powerful spirit from the depth of his being,” to quote René Dubos. If he is “mad,” it is with the intensity and shock of realizing that in suppressing and, it now turns out, fatally weakening ­[page 20:] his psychic-moral self, he has destroyed the “vitality” of his creative soul. As in “William Wilson,” the suppression of this psychal energy necessarily means the death of the whole being. It is too late for Roderick and Madeline as complementary selves to be reunited in a living whole, a mutually sustaining relationship. As they cannot die separately, they must die together — symbolically speaking. Except for the symbolism of the double, Roderick’s death is not unlike Dimmesdale’s in The Scarlet Letter — the result of too long denying the deepest moral and spiritual self.

In the “world of mind” as defined by Poe, the poetic intellect or sentiment is intimately, organically related to the other faculties, especially the Moral Sense. In the “true genius,” whether artistic or other, sensibility must not be divorced from vitality. The splitting apart of these forces in the psyche results in the tragic fate of William Wilson, of the narrators in “Morella” and “Ligeia,” and of the twins Roderick and Madeline. The very remoteness or isolation of the House of Usher symbolizes the artist turning his back on the world of humanity, with deadly consequences. Ten years later Poe reaffirmed the dependence of the artist on the integrity of his soul in these strong words:

Not only do I think it paradoxical to speak of a man of genius as personally ignoble, but I confidently maintain that the highest genius is but the loftiest moral nobility.

From the year 1840, through 1849, there is a continuing and cumulative development of Poe’s psychal transcendentalism, though none of it, unfortunately, in further tales of psychic conflict. Instead, Poe expressed himself through marginalia, poems, essays, lectures, imaginary colloquies, and Eureka, which Valéry classified as a “poème cosmogenique moderne.” But it would require most of another lecture hour to do relative justice to these later works omitted from consideration today. I cannot agree with Robert Jacobs when, in his Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge, 1969), he writes that “the ideal, as Poe interpreted it in his later years, was to be found only in music or in lyric poetry.” But I can agree with the next sentence: “It was something that happened in the mind and could only be recognized as a psychic process . . . ,” adding that “participation in the experience of ­[page 21:] such a poem required highly developed sensibility.” And if “The Raven” is open to such a response from the sophisticated reader, that also holds true for “Eleonora” (1841), “The Island of the Fay” (1841), “Ulalume” (1847), “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847), “For Annie” (1849), “Eldorado” (1849), and “Annabel Lee” (1849). Except for its passages of poetic prose, Eureka (1848), of course, poses problems as a “poem” addressed “to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities.” But it does represent Poe’s ambitious attempt to relate the cosmic and the psychic levels of experience in his effort to say that Death is not all — there is “Life — Life — Life within Life”; and further to say that man’s “proper identity,” his rational intelligence, is not all — he is also endowed with poetic sensibility, moral energy or vitality, and with an immortal, unquenchable thirst for not only the Beauty before us, but the Beauty beyond that of the five senses, a hunger for a depth of psychal realization that is nothing less than “identity with God.”

In tracing the evolution of Poe’s vision of Man from the Pastoralism and Neoplatonism of his early years through his Existentialist period to a third or final vision, I find that his major theme, from as early as 1835 to the end of his life, is the irrepressible will in man to self-realization as a process of rebirth. Such a renewal of the soul, Poe seems to say, can come only from a rediscovery of man’s psycho-transcendental awareness and energies, the powers that constitute the God Within. As a serious artist, Poe was not only great in his tales of psychic conflict — those Arabesques in which the “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul” — but also great in his all-encompassing high vision of the human spirit, actual and potential. After 130 years, he still remains to be fully appreciated for that high vision and deep faith, for what he recognized in Longfellow’s “Excelsior” as “the earnest upward impulse of the soul — an impulse not to be subdued even in Death. . . .”

In Poe’s vision, modern man is lost unless his ego — his conscious, rational self — can be reunited with his moral and psychal, transcendental energies. As an analyst of the soul of man, Poe was as fully aware as Hawthorne, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson of the structure and the dynamics of the psyche, the deeper levels of the preconscious and the unconscious where such forces as love ­[page 22:] and hate, will and fear, reality and illusion engage in struggles that can be resolved only by the primal unitary Self. In writing of this struggle, often personified as a conflict between a man and a woman, Poe seems to have intuitively anticipated the following statement by Wilma Scott Heide on September 16 of this year:

The woman most in need of liberation may be the feminine part of the human potential that lies caged in the psyche of every man who resists women’s liberation. “The man” most in need of human liberation may be the masculine part of the human potential that is inhibited (from expressing) in the psyche of every woman who denies her need for liberation. Both woman and the church have been privatized and trivialized. The church and the world need publicly shared talents of the feminine part of the human potential, for women and men to produce a fully human and humane world.

The relevance and challenge of Poe’s insights into the soul of man could be further pointed up by references to William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, Carl Jung’s Man in Search of His Soul, The Structure and Dynamics of the Ego, and The Undiscovered Self, and by still further references to R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, Rollo May’s Love and Will, and Abraham Maslow’s Toward a New Psychology of Being. But time forbids. Theodore Roszak’s new book, cited at the beginning, has been advertised as “a State of the Union Message on the condition of the soul of man.” In Poe’s writings we have not only a “message” and a vision but also an unfolding drama of the divided self in search of his Soul, and, through love and will, discovering the authentic Being-self of “full-humanness.”

The discovery of that potential Self is also the theme of Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, a symbolic fantasy in the Poe tradition of American literature, a work of art dedicated “To the real Jonathan Seagull, who lives within us all.” When I read that “ ‘Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect.’ The Here and Now is all that’s left when we overcome space and time,” I am reading words that echo Poe’s “out of space — out of time,” and when I read that “‘seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than ­[page 23:] your thought itself”’ — then I realize that Poe is no more mystical than the best-selling author Richard Bach. Partly to illustrate that fact and partly to show how pervasive is Poe’s theme of the absolute Soul, I should like to read, in conclusion, two short symbolic poems:


Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow

Of crystal, wandering water,

Thou art an emblem of the glow

Of beauty — the unhidden heart —

The playful maziness of art

In old Alberto’s daughter;


But when within thy wave she looks —

Which glistens then, and trembles —

Why, then, the prettiest of brooks

Her worshipper resembles:

For in his heart, as in thy stream,

Her image deeply lies —

His heart which trembles at the beam

Of her soul-searching eyes.



Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.


On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.


Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!



This lecture was delivered by Eric W. Carlson of the University of Connecticut at the Fiftieth Annual Commemorative Program of The Poe Society, October 8, 1972.

© 1973 and 1999, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

This version of the paper incorporates several minor corrections, supplied by the author on October 18, 1999.


[S:1 - PSM, 1973] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe on the Soul of Man (E. W. Carlson, 1973)