Text: Gerald E. Gerber, “Milton and Poe’s ‘Modern Woman’,” Poe Newsletter­, December 1970, vol. III, no. 2, 3:25-26


[page 25, column 1:]

Milton and Poe’s “Modern Woman”

Duke University

Poe’s criticism of literary ladies, although quantitatively a small part of his treatment of women, has not lacked scholarly comment (1). The art of the satire of the female writer in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1845; previously entitled “The Psyche Zenobia” [1838] and “The Signora Zenobia” [1840]) and “A Predicament” (1845; previously entitled “The Scythe of Time” [1838, 1840]), however, has not received the attention it deserves (2). In this regard, Milton, who thought that woman was naturally inferior to man (3), is a very appropriate but little recognized point of reference. Thomas McNeal has suggested only that the earlier title, “The Scythe of Time,” comes from Paradise Lost (Bk. X, 11.605-6) (4). And Thomas P. Haviland, in his rather thorough discussion of Poe’s knowledge and use of Milton, says only that the epigraph for “A Predicament” was taken from “Comus” (5). In this note I want to suggest that Poe finds Milton a convenient source of material for the exposure of the Signora Psyche Zenobia, the heroine of the two tales. As corresponding secretary to the Philadelphia, Regular, Exchange, Tea, Total, Young, Belles, Lettres, Universal, Experimental, Bibliographical, Association, To, Civilize, Humanity (the P.R.E.T.T.Y.B.L.U.E.B.A.T.C.H.), she is obviously a young literary lady on the go. The Miltonic aspects of the tales emphasize the error of this modernity.

Poe’s “A Predicament,” which is Zenobia’s narration of a “desperate” experience suitable for the subject of a Blackwood article, and Milton’s “Comus” are related not only because Poe added the epigraph — “What chance, good lady, hath bereft you thus?” — in the revision of the tale. The two works are similar, first, of course, in the situation represented: both deal with ladies in distress. Second, there are thematic similarities. “Comus” is about the security of the virtuous mind in threatening circumstances (of violence and wrong) (6). With heaven’s aid, the lady proves superior to the “chance” that separates her from her brothers and brings her before Comus, who attempts to pervert her “wel-govern ’d and wise appetite.” Zenobia has no such power to govern her appetite. From the moment that she chances by the cathedral and is swept into it by “an uncontrollable desire,” she is subject to the whim of circumstance (or “fate” or “destiny,” as she refers to her adversary). Attendants (dramatic or spiritual) appear in both works. In “Comus” the lady feels properly protected because she is attended by “a strong siding champion Conscience,” “pure-ey ’d Faith,” “white-handed [column 2:] Hope,” and “thou unblemish ’t form of Chastity” (7). She believes that “the Supreme good” would send “a glistring Guardian if need were / To keep my life and honour unassail ’d.” Zenobia, in her own adventure, is attended only by Diana, a tiny poodle, and by Pompey, a three-foot, aged, bow-legged, corpulent Negro servant. When she is swept into the door of the cathedral to her predicament, she exclaims, “Where then was my guardian angel? — if indeed such angels there be.”

The Miltonic context for the characterization of Zenobia is broader than that provided by “Comus.” Elements of Eve in Paradise Lost also seem to be in Zenobia’s make-up. Eve and Zenobia are motivated in similar ways. Eve falls “through vanity and curiosity for new experience” (8). Zenobia is certainly vain. She has changed her name from Suky Snobbs; she thinks of herself as a Queen; she says her literary group met with little success until she joined it. Moreover, like Eve, she eats fruit from the tree of knowledge; that is, she pursues new experiences (which her literary advisor, Mr. Blackwood, calls “experimental knowledge”). During this excursion with experimental knowledge, after reaching the belfry of the cathedral, Zenobia thrusts her head through an opening in the dial-plate of a clock and gives herself up completely to her new experience of surveying “the immense extent of the city” below. (She is intemperate, as Jesus is not. In Paradise Regained Satan takes Jesus “up to a Mountain high” [Bk. III, 11.251-252] from which he can survey the landscape and kingdoms below. Jesus, of course, does not find this panorama appetizing.) In her pursuit of experience, she proves all too mortal. Too date she realizes that the minute hand of the clock, the “Scythe of Time, ” will decapitate her. The site of Zenobia’s predicament is “the classic Edina,” a designation which not only points to Edinburgh and indicates Zenobia’s Latinate tendencies, and probably Poe’s knowledge of English Romantic poetry, but also, in this Miltonic context, perhaps suggests Eden. One need not insist on the wordplay to suggest that the headless Zenobia lost her view of the “glorious” scene below her, “the heavenly scenery,” that is, of paradisiacal Edina.

Even Poe’s technique of characterizing Zenobia (who contends that she is “all soul”) by her outward form echoes Milton (and Plato). The Platonic (Phaedo, section 81) idea that outward form exposes the condition of the soul is expressed at length in “Comus” (11.452 ff.). The condition of Zenobia’s soul is reflected outwardly in her ostentatious butterfly costume and especially in her heedlessness at the end of the tale. Her heedlessness indicates the loss of reason and judgment; it represents the ungoverned soul which has been defiled by her appetite for new experience (9).

These Miltonic aspects of the tales suggest that Poe’s use of a line from “Comus” for an epigraph for “A Predicament” [page 26:] was more calculated than has been recognized. In fact, the Miltonic context adds a significant moral dimension to much of the topical satire. In both of Zenobia’s tales Poe derides an unwise appetite for knowledge, especially on the part of woman. In the satire on Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, he criticizes the tale of sensation for which the writer must pursue new experience or experimental knowledge. Thus, in the figure of Psyche Zenobia, who tries her hand at such tales, Poe caricatures the modern nineteenth-century woman. Moreover, Poe seems (according to McNeal’s persuasive argument) to have had a specific modern woman in mind: Margaret Fuller, a well-known bluestocking who in 1838 had already published erudite essays and who later edited the Dial and produced, five months before the final revision of the satires appeared, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.



(1)  See, for example, Richard Cary, “Poe and the Literary Ladies,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, IX (Spring 1967), 94-96.

(2)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1965), II, 269-295. The tales appeared in American Museum of Literature and the Arts, I (November 1838), 301-317; in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (Philadelphia, 1840), 1, 213-243; and in Broadway Journal, II (July 12, 1845), 1-7. The primary discussions of the satire in these tales are Thomas H. McNeal’s “Poe’s ‘Zenobia ’: An Early Satire on Margaret Fuller,” Modern Language Quarterly, XI (June 1950), 205-216, and William Whipple’s “A Study of Edgar Allan Poe’s Satiric Patterns,” Diss. Northwestern University, 1951, pp. 33-41, 122-127. See also my article, “The Coleridgean Context of Poe’s Blackwood Satires,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 60, Supplement (Fall 1970), 87-91.

(3)  James Holly Hanford, A Milton Handbook (New York, 1961 ed.), p. 91.

(4)  “Poe’s ‘Zenobia, ’ “ p. 212.

(5)  “How Well Did Poe Know Milton?” PMLA, LXIX (September 1954), 846.

(6)  Hanford, p. 159.

(7)  While chastity is not the specific issue in Poe’s tale, the virtue is associated with Zenobia, the celebrated Amazonian queen of Palmyra (who had literary talents). Zenobia’s chastity is mentioned, for example, in Charles Anthon’s improvement of Lempriere’s A Classical Dictionary, a possible source (which has not been pointed out previously) for the figure of Poe’s Zenobia. Poe commented on the Dictionary in the January, 1837, Southern Literary Messenger (Works, IX, 266). The “Zenobia” entry in this dictionary might have suggested or reinforced other suggestions for the Psyche Zenobia’s pretended royal lineage and her learnedness, especially in Latin and Greek. The queen of Palmyra “was acquainted with every branch of useful learning, and spoke with fluency the language of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Latins.” The “Zenobia” entry is particularly striking because of the connection between Poe’s Zenobia and William Ware’s Letters . . . . from Palmyra (1837) which McNeal points out in “Poe’s ‘Zenobia, ’” p. 207.

(8)  Hanford, p. 213.

(9)  Also interesting in a Miltonic context is Poe’s use of the river Alpheus (which was said to pass under the sea from Peloponnesus and, uncontaminated by the salt waters, to rise in Ortygia and to join the stream of Arethusa) in one of Mr. Blackwood’s piquant facts for similes: “ ’The river Alpheus passed beneath the sea, and emerged without injury to the purity of its waters. ’” Zenobia uses this piquant fact in “A Predicament” to describe her passage through the archway of the cathedral: “I entered; and, without injury to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed [column 2:] beneath the portal, and emerged within the vestibule! Thus it is said the immense river Alfred passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.” Zenobia’s movement, of course, burlesques that of the mythological river. But the allusion might also be to “Lycidas,” which, like Poe’s satires, deals with the premature death of a writer. In “Lycidas” (1.132) the Alpheus is a kind of muse for the speaker. For Zenobia, however, the once inspiring Alpheus loses its identity in the Alfred. Thus the allusion might suggest that Zenobia’s muse (Mr. Blackwood, who thinks the Alpheus is nothing more than the subject of a piquant fact and who directs her to pad her Blackwood article with such facts) is bogus.

In the 1838 and 1840 versions of “A Predicament,” the Alpheus becomes the Alceus (rather than the Alfred). Here Poe might have intended a Byronic echo too. In “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” the poet, Alcaeus, also “died” prematurely. He was severely injured by Scotch critics (11.418-425). Thus he did not pass unscathed; his poetic blossoms withered. Zenobia’s easy passage in the manner of the river Alceus might suggest that her poetic soul and powers (if not her costume) actually have been defiled, since the waters of her person have been polluted by Mr. Blackwood’s incompetence. Poe’s criticism of Mr. Blackwood’s poetic and Zenobia’s eagerness to follow it, of course, is in the spirit of Byron’s attacks on critics, “usurpers on the Throne of Taste,” before whom “Authors bend in humble awe, / And hail their voice as Truth, their word as Law” (11.84-86).


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