Text: Lou Ann Kriegisch, “ ‘Ulalume’ — A Platonic Profanation of Beauty and Love,” Poe Studies, December 1978, Vol. XI, No. 2, 11:29-31


[page 29:]

“Ulalume” — A Platonic Profanation of
Beauty and Love

University of Cincinnati

James E. Miller, Jr., first prepared the way for a reading of “Ulalume” as an experience wholly dictated by “an intelligence in a suspended state, in static conflict with itself. . . . This intelligence is not just at the center of the poem — it is, in a very real sense, the poem in its entirety.” Miller focuses upon the narrator’s excited state and his shock upon seeing Ulalume’s tomb, arguing that the tomb precipitates the narrator’s realization that sex is unfulfilling and leads to death. Could the “connection between sexual love and death,” Miller questions, be that “terrible knowledge . . . which the narrator has attempted to forget, and which, in the course of the poem, he rediscovers?’’ (1) Eight years later, Eric W. Carlson starts from the same emphasis upon the narrator’s consciousness but presents this counter-argument: “To hold that the discovery of the tomb represents death through or of the sexual instinct instead of the revived power (through felt loss) of ideal love, is to assume that Astarte represents a real value greater than Ulalume.” The narrator’s discovery of Ulalume’s tomb is not a discovery of death and hence death itself but rather an awakening from “his fatuous hope and rationalization that sensuousness will drown out despair” (2). David Halliburton draws upon both Miller and Carlson in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View but concludes that neither repressed grief nor a harrowing and despairing confrontation with death is the major revelation brought about by the discovery of Ulalume’s tomb. The protagonist, Halliburton explains, has failed to “guard” the dead Ulalume by failing to remember her. His abrupt confrontation with Ulalume’s tomb causes him to face the fact that he has not been a “faithful mourner” (3).

My reading of “Ulalume,” based on parallels in the poem with events in Plato’s Phaedrus, develops Carlson’s understanding of the psychological repercussion of a body-soul conflict as it is represented by “the speaker (sensuous-emotional) and Psyche (his spiritual self or conscience)” (p. 28) and relates this to Halliburton’s detection of the sense of dishonor in the poem. I believe “Ulalume” contains a moral and philosophical sense of profanation arising from the Platonic conflict of sensuous love and spiritual love which goes beyond the moral negligence proposed by Halliburron to a deeper sense of sin. Halliburton touches on the significance of the breach of memory and the failure to guard the dead in “Ulalume” but does not fully investigate the implications of “sin” suggested by the use of religious diction and allusions within the poem, nor does he trace what I think is aptly described as “profanation” to Plato’s Phaedrus. “Ulalume” adopts two related events directly from Phaedrus — the struggle between body and soul and the profanation of love and beauty. [page 30:]


Poe’s poetical and philosophical base is found in the Platonic relationship of love, soul, and beauty. Briefly stated, the elevation of the soul (psyche) is caused by the proper love (eros) of beauty. “Love — the divine Eros’ Poe writes in “The Poetic Principle,” “is unquestionably the purest of all poetical themes.”4 The failure to revere beauty and love is nothing less than a profanation and an impiety. Beauty or a beautiful woman is sacred: the poet “feels it in the beauty of woman . . . but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love” (XIV, 291). In these climactic lines, “kneels,” “worships,” “faith,” “purity,” and “divine majesty” all connote reverence and piety. The opposite is brute consummation and an outright profanation of both love and beauty. The worst dishonor a man can bring upon himself is to slight that beauty or to forsake it for a sensual and degrading love (XIV, 290). The protagonist of “Ulalume” commits both sins. He slights his love by forgetting her, thus failing as a devoted mourner, and he demeans himself by succumbing to the sensual appeal of Astarte. Upon discovering the tomb, the narrator realizes that he has profaned the memory of the dead Ulalume, as Halliburton explains, and consequently, I believe, that he has profaned beauty and love.

The narrator’s situation in “Ulalume” recalls Socrates’ famous analogy in Phaedrus of the soul as charioteer drawn by two winged horses by which Plato described the degradation of the soul resulting from the failure to apprehend beauty properly. In terms appropriate to Poe’s thought, one horse, having an ethereal nature, strives for supernal beauty, while the “earthy” one pursues physical beauty. In effect, the earthly horse desires to consummate his love, while the ethereal one wishes to contemplate his beloved. In “Ulalume” the narrator is internally torn between lower sensual beauty and higher ethereal beauty, a division rendered dramatically by his temporary yielding to Astarte, the goddess of sexual love, despite the admonishments and pleading of Psyche, his Soul, to distrust her. From the narrator’s seated preference for Astarte to Dian, the goddess of chastity, (“‘She is warmer than Dian; / She rolls through an ether of sighs’”) (5), we know that the memory of Ulalume is being displaced by unchaste desires, that the sensual is winning over the spiritual. But Psyche, even though she shares with the narrator a memory “treacherous and sere” (I. 22), mistrusts Astarte and beseeches her companion to flee: “Ah, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.” In terror she spoke; letting sink her

Wings till they trailed in the dust —

In agony sobbed; letting sink her

Plumes till they trailed in the dust —

Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

(II. 55-60)

At this point, the internal conflict evident from the beginning (“I roamed with my Soul,” I. 12) is now externalized through Psyche’s voiced fears and reluctance to trust the light of Astarte as completely as the narrator does. [column 2:]

The notion of the soul’s having wings which enable it to disengage itself from its earthly “tomb” is found throughout Plato’s works. In Phaedrus particularly, Socrates explains that the love of beauty allows the wings to sprout, “whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground” (6). Poe seems to have borrowed the image directly (7). The verb “fly” in the passage above thus has two co-existent meanings: Psyche’s desire to depart and her longing for metaphorical flight, the elevation of the soul, which her dust-laden wings cannot accomplish. Psyche’s misgivings are justified, for, contrary to the narrator’s belief that Astarte’s “Sibyllic splendor is beaming / With Hope and in Beauty “ (italics mine, II. 64-65), her “nebulous lustre” is more erotic than sibyllic. The way in which the narrator persuades Psyche to cease her protestations is particularly revealing:

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,

And tempted her out of her gloom —

And conquered her scruples and gloom.

(italics mine, II. 72-74)

Himself affected by the sensuous star, he employs erotic appeal to dispel Psyche’s misgivings. This follows, Carlson maintains, only because Astarte “appeared in response to his subconscious desire for seductive escape from grief-haunted memory” (p. 33).

The deceptive nature of Astarte’s appeal is illuminated by the contention in Phaedrus that sensual beauty has a visible image which the unenlightened man mistakes for true beauty:

Now he who is not newly initiated or who has become corrupted does not easily rise out of this world to the sight of true beauty in the other, he looks at her earthly namesake, and instead of being awed at the sight of her, he is given over to pleasure, and like a brutish beast he rushes on to enjoy and beget. (Dialogues, I, 255)

Analogously, Ulalume’s lover is guilty of failing to cherish true beauty (the memory of Ulalume) by yielding to the appeal of an immediately visible image (Astarte). He willingly follows Astarte, implicitly allowing sexual desire to guide his insistence that she beams with “Hope” and in “Beauty” and points “the path to the skies — / To the Lethean peace of the skies” ( 11. 45-46) . The narrator thoughtlessly trusts in Astarte’s light: “Let us on, by this tremulous light! / Let us bathe in this crystalline light!” ( II. 62-63) . But after Psyche and the protagonist come upon Ulalume’s tomb, they realize that they have followed a false light. Memory is revived; Astarte has failed to bring Lethean peace. They both, now in harmony, curse the “sinfully scintillant planet.” What was once a “crystalline” light that could only guide them “aright” is now seen as a mere “spectra.”

The narrator of Poe’s poem has mistaken the shadow of carnal beauty for the true light of divine beauty. Light in Poe’s works is a recurring symbol of enlightenment and apocalyptical reunification, just as it is in Plato’s works. Astarte as “spectre of a planet” in “Ulalume” accords with Plato’s analogies of the moonlight of becoming, the mortal [page 31:] state, and the sunlight of being, the immortal state (Dialogues, I, 770). The narrator not only deludes himself into believing that Astarte will perpetuate his forgetfulness and obliterate any feelings of grief, he subconsciously prefers what Socrates calls the “twilight of becoming and perishing” to an ideal love. After all, the true source of light for the planet (Venus) is the sun. In this sense, calling Astarte a “spectre” has some scientific validity. Like the men in Plato’s cave who see the world not by direct light but by shadow, Ulalume’s lover witnesses not true light but its spectre. By the last stanza the physical brilliance of Astarte is considerably diminished, as the narrator concomitantly realizes his two-fold sin of forgetting Ulalume and preferring sexual release to reverent mourning.

Even though by following Astarte the protagonist comes upon Ulalume’s tomb, Poe is not suggesting that Astarte led the protagonist to a realization that he has forgotten Ulalume and in place of her memory tried to find escape from grief through the sensual. As Halliburton remarks, “It is neither Psyche nor the ghouls who have brought the speaker here, but the speaker himself.” Taking up Carlson’s observation that Astarte is a projection of his subconscious desires, Halliburton contends that only the speaker’s “wishful misinterpretation brings him to the tomb and his victimizing remembrance” (p. 146). To argue, as a recent article by David Robinson does, that Astarte is conjured up by the ghouls deliberately to bring the narrator to Ulalume’s tomb and to remind him of the inevitability and finality of death would, as Carlson says, assign to Astarte an importance greater than Ulalume’s (8). Rather, it is Ulalume’s tomb that at once revives the protagonist’s memory and causes him to realize his profanation. Astarte’s proximity to the tomb, at this point, does at least implicitly reinforce the Platonic notion that the inevitable end of sexual love, as it attempts to replace frustrated ideal love, is death not transcendence. But Robinson overlooks the significance of the narrator’s reunion with his soul and his renunciation of any allegiance to Astarte when he claims that the poem ends on a note of despair.

The ghouls’ putative responsibility for Astarte’s appearance does not exonerate Ulalume’s lover from his sin, nor does he suggest that it might. He simply tries to comprehend the cause and the significance of her appearance. Critics have differed about whether the speaker feels the ghouls are beneficent or harmful. The ghouls seem “merciful” for having provided Astarte as a well-intended diversion, and yet, as Halliburton notes, if it had “succeeded, it could only have perpetuated the speaker’s obliviousness, enabling him to continue . . . in a state of sin” (p. 152). Carlson perceptively penetrates beyond the narrator’s uncertainty concerning the ghouls by reminding us that Astarte is truly “derived . . . from the speaker’s own condition of Hellish despair, which nearly drives him mad (’lunary souls’)” (p. 34). However the cause of Astarte’s appearance is interpreted by the narrator, he remains culpable for his infidelity.

Thus, while the events of “Ulalume” point to the profanation of beauty, the denouement indicates the recognition of this impiety. The events are explicitly described as [column 2:] religious transgressions. That “night of all nights in the year” or Halloween is significantly the eve of the hallowed All Saints’ Day, the one night of the year when the dead return, and the anniversary of Ulalume’s burial. The narrator cries out in anguish, “Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?” ( italics mine, l. 90), attributing his transgression to Satanic influence. His awareness of his impious act is evident in his choice of words — “This sinfully scintillant planet” (I. 103) — when describing Astarte. By directing his wrath toward Astarte, he is really cursing himself for sinning against Ulalume. This reversal, turning away from Astarte and acknowledging his transgression, parallels a passage in Phaedrus in which Socrates, fearing retribution for profaning Eros, recants his first speech applauding the sensual non-lover over the reverent lover. He tells Phaedrus that he has committed an impiety against the god Eros and that like Stesischorus, who lost his sight for defaming Helen, he must purge himself by offering a palinode for the remission of his deed. In Poe’s version of the profanation of beauty and love, the narrator also recognizes his transgression, retracts his blasphemy against the divine Eros, and renounces Astarte. Plato disparages that which embraces a transitory state as an end in itself. Just so, Poe’s narrator comes to realize the necessary distinction between decadence and transcendence, between love which degrades and love which elevates. This newly gained knowledge enables him to withstand the temptations that beset him and redeems him from his sin against the dead Ulalume and his defamation of spiritual love and beauty for which she stands.

Carlson made “Ulalume” understandable in terms of psychological conflict: the narrator subconsciously represses his grief over the death of Ulalume and seeks peace through the senses. Concomitant with this level of meaning is the Platonic struggle between earthly love and spiritual love dramatized in the narrator’s infatuation with Astarte as a substitute for a forgotten and dead Ulalume and the grave sin of profaning not only a beautiful woman but more universally Love and Beauty. To communicate this, Poe imbues the poem with diction, images, and events that poinr to a similar metaphysical and moral profanation in Plato’s Phaedrus.



(1) James E. Miller, Jr., “‘Ulalume’ Resurrected,” Philological Quarterly, 34 (1955), 204-205.

(2) Eric W. Carlson, “Symbol and Sense in Poe’s ‘Ulalume,’” American Literature, 25 (1963), 35, 29.

(3) David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 43.

(4) Complete Works, XIV, 290. Further references in the text will be indicated by volume and page number only.

(5)Works, I, 417, 11. 39-40; all future quotations from “Ulalume” cite this text by line number.

(6) The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett (New York: Random House, 1937), I, 251.

(7) T. O. Mabbott, in his “Notes” to “Ulalume,” Works, I, 423, says that “Drooping wings in sorrow is as old as the sixteenth fragment of Sappho,” but he does not mention Plato’s Phaedrus.

(8) David Robinson, “‘Ulalume’ — The Ghouls and the Critics,” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 8-10.


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