Text: Jay L. Halio, “The Moral Mr. Poe,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:23-24


[page 23, column 1:]

The Moral Mr. Poe

University of Delaware

One would think Edgar Allan Poe would be the last to claim a moral for his tales or poems: he is well-known in the annals of literary criticism for his dicta on “the heresy of the didactic” and other anti-moralistic strictures. But Poe comments that a moral undercurrent is not undesirable. Poesy, he says, “is not forbidden to moralise — in her own fashion. She is not forbidden to depict — but to reason and preach, of virtue.” [Works, ed. J. A. Harrison, XI, 71; cf. X, 60-71 on Moore (esp. p. 65); XI, 67-85 on Longfellow; XIII, 148-155 on Hawthorne.] His actual work in fiction is thus not without its moral basis, and in several stories on the will — “Morella,” for example, and “Ligeia” — Poe offers variations upon a theme which cannot be called other than moral.

The first of these, “Morella,” is the shorter, a kind of preliminary sketch for “Ligeia.” The basic plot is clear: the narrator is drawn into marriage by Morella, a woman whose powerful learning exercises a fascinating attraction upon him. She later dies, but at the moment of her death, her child is born. The father, who had never loved Morella, comes to adore the child, who grows uncommonly fast in wisdom and intelligence as well as bodily size and strikingly resembles her mother. Still without a name after ten years, this prodigy is finally taken by her father to the baptismal fount. There, compelled by some “demon,” he pronounces the name Morella and watches in horror while the girl responds, “I am here!” and falls prostrate upon their ancestral vault.

The main point, of course, concerns the curious reincarnation of the mother’s identity in the daughter, but far more curious is the generation of the child in the first place. Up until the moment of her birth, we are made to believe that the attractions between father and mother have been purely intellectual, involved in occult erudition, not sex. In the very first paragraph, after the summary announcement of their marriage, the narrator says, “I never spoke of passion, nor thought of love.” Their relationship, moreover, is that of teacher and pupil — with the husband as pupil to the vastly learned Morella. Eventually, the “mystery” of his wife’s manner begins to repel him; and though his “alienation of regard” causes his wife to pine away, she accepts the situation fatalistically, conscious of some cause behind his attitude totally unknown even to him. As she dies, she utters the cryptic words, “I am dying, yet I shall live,” and without prior warning (to the reader, at least) announces the advent of her child.

Morella’s offspring may best be understood as the product of her great force of will and an instrument for moral retribution against Morella’s unloving husband. As she says on her deathbed, his hours of happiness are over, and his days henceforth will be days of sorrow. Retribution is complete — and ironic — when, as the child grows apace, the father realizes that he loves her “with a love more fervent than I had believed it possible to feel for any denizen of [column 2:] earth”; and then she dies at the baptismal fount.

“Ligeia” is a distinct advance over “Morella” in both its complexity and more powerful effects. Ligeia shares Morella’s immense learning, but is also much more attractive, in the special way of Poe’s sculptured heroines. This time the husband (again the narrator) fully reciprocates the great love his wife bears him: theirs is not the one-sided affair of “Morella,” and this fact has important later consequences. Husband and wife once more enter into the study of “forbidden” learning with an equal zeal, and again the wife enjoys an outstanding advantage in knowledge and ability. But Ligeia especially seems to show a remarkable intensity in her manner, which the narrator directly relates to what he calls her “gigantic volition.” It is also related to the tremendous passion underlying her otherwise calm external appearance. In both her powerful will and her passion she exceeds Morella, her prototype, in several interesting ways.

For one thing, Ligeia’s will seems bent mainly upon fulfilling “her wild desire for life, for life — but for life,” which becomes all the more urgent as she begins to waste away towards a premature death. The cause of her death is less explicitly stated than Morella’s, but it appears to derive, paradoxically, from her intense will, this superhuman desire for life, which can sustain itself only for so long. How long? This becomes the central concern of the story. On her deathbed, Ligeia has her husband read the allegorical poem she had written on “the Conqueror Worm,” and then cries out:

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? Who — who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

In the Faustian context of her strivings, Ligeia’s invocations at first strike an odd or inappropriate note, despite the immediate situation, but the explanation for them and for much else lies in the sentences quoted from the passage used earlier as an epigraph and attributed to Joseph Glanville. Of particular importance is a sentence that Ligeia omits (as does her husband, who afterwards repeats her words). The passage, with the specified sentence in my italics, reads in full:

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.

Ligeia obliquely paraphrases the missing sentence with, “Are we not part and parcel in Thee?” — which points to the underlying cause of her death and the story’s main thematic development. By her intense, or “gigantic,” volition, Ligeia has sought to rival God, claiming a kinship with him that, like the learning to which she has introduced her husband, is in such intensity forbidden. Her attempts to become superhuman further explain her unusual appearance at the beginning, her “strangeness,” and the attraction she has for her husband. But, as we have seen, they also lead to her death — and her bizarre manner of overcoming death at the end of the story. [page 24:]

Ligeia dies and leaves her husband inconsolable. He abandons their lonely dwelling on the Rhine for a deserted abbey in a remote part of England and marries “the fair-haired and blue-eyed Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine.” He explains this marriage to a woman so different from Ligeia as one made “in a moment of mental alienation,” but as events turn out, it appears purposeful enough in providing for Ligeia’s reincarnation. The husband does not love his new bride — he in fact loathes her — for he still bears the vivid memories of his beloved Ligeia. Consequently — and the causal relationship is clear enough — a month after her wedding Rowena falls ill. She recovers, only to fall ill again; at times she seems mentally deranged. Rowena’s strange behavior and the narrator’s own observations or wild imaginings as well have suggested the presence in their grotesque bridal chamber of some shadowy third person. Now death approaches, and Rowena lies wrapped in her shroud, as her husband watches over her. Several times — each time as her husband has been deep in memories of Ligeia — Rowena appears to revive, only to fall back again into more profound relapse. At last, the “hideous drama of revivification” reaches its climax. The corpse, still in its shroud, rises up from its bed and, “advancing boldly and palpably into the middle of the apartment,” reveals itself to be no longer the despised and fair-haired Rowena, but the lost, beloved, and raven-haired Ligeia.

It is at this conclusion, at the point of its greatest emotional impact, that Poe’s story also points its moral. Abetted by her husband’s own infected will, or longings after her, Ligeia has brought about her resurrection through the sheer force of her will not to yield unto death utterly. But the effect, astonishing and powerful as it is, is also one of great horror. Far from making Ligeia God-like, her reincarnation — like Morella’s — makes her demonic. Furthermore, her distraught husband, as we are told at the beginning, is finally left with redoubled loss, with “much suffering” — not joy. The super- or suprahuman “intentness” of Ligeia demonstrates a great will, surely; but the results are impious, impious in the extreme. Hence the horror of the conclusion, and its moral: the emotional effect, the horror, is the moral.

Further evidence of Poe’s deeply moral, though hardly didactic, concern with the effects of a Faustian will rivaling God’s is provided by the extraordinary lengths to which Prince Prospero goes to avoid death, and his peculiarly horrible end in “The Mask of the Red Death.” Death, whether by plague or other causes, is the common lot of man, and no castle however powerful may shut it out; on the contrary, the attempt to escape may only intensify its horror. Again, the moral basis for “A Descent into the Maelström” depends, at least in part, upon the hubris of the three brothers who make their fishing “a matter of desperate speculation — the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital.” Despite repeated warnings of near disaster, they persevere in their recklessness, until the fateful tenth of July. At last their defiance of God’s natural wonder — the maelström — meets with catastrophe. But what saves, or redeems, the surviving brother? Surely, as with Melville’s Ishmael, there is something here beyond the literal necessity for a teller of the tale. I submit that his acknowledgement of God’s grandeur as [column 2:] they approach the gulf, and his submission to it, along with a recovery of hope (contrasted to his brother’s despair) are what save him. His new hope, importantly, derives from a recognition of natural laws and his willingness to trust his life to them rather than resist them (again, as his desperate brother does). Nor is his “hurried prayer to God,” as they begin their descent, to be overlooked. In short, like others of Poe’s heroes, the fisherman pays for his hubris, but unlike many of them, he is given an opportunity for some saving insight before it is too late. As if to point the moral of this tale, Poe again has recourse to an epigraph from “Joseph Glanville”:

The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus. [Italics in original.]

The old guide has learned this to his cost — his white hairs testify to only part of that cost; but the narrator, representing a “norm” in the story’s frame, seems willing enough, even at the outset, to accept without such devastating trial the magnificence to which his companion attests.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]