Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Life in Death (The Oval Portrait),” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 659-667 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 659, continued:]


In its final form “The Oval Portrait” is one of the briefest and best known of the arabesques. It was much shortened when recast from the first version called “Life in Death,” published in Graham's Magazine for April 1842. [page 660:]

The central idea is the very ancient one that the spirit may take up its residence in a facsimile. This was doctrinal to the Ancient Egyptians, who made statues for the ka (what modern Occultists call the astral body), and to modern primitive peoples who are afraid of photography. “The Oval Portrait” is the latest of Poe's stories to deal with relations between a person and his double or his image.*

Poe's inspiration was a painting by his friend Robert M. Sully, as his granddaughter, Miss Julia Sully of Richmond, has revealed. She wrote that the picture was an oval portrait, two-thirds life-size, of a girl holding in her hand a locket that hung on a ribbon about her bare neck.

Poe also may have known a story of Tintoretto (1518-1594), who is said to have painted a portrait of his beloved daughter, Maria Robusti, herself a gifted painter, on her deathbed.

In her Origins of Poe's Critical Theory, p. 20, Margaret Alterton pointed out a parallel between the opening of Poe's “Life in Death” (see the variants, below) and that of a story called “Buried Alive” in Blackwood's for October 1821: “I had been for some time ill of a low and lingering fever. My strength gradually wasted, but the sense of life seemed to become more and more acute as my corporeal powers became weaker. I could see by the looks of the doctor that he despaired of my recovery.”

There also may well be a slight autobiographical element in the tale. It may be recalled that Virginia Poe cared little for her husband's poetry, as the heroine of the story was jealous of her husband's painting. But Virginia ruptured a blood vessel while singing in January 1842, and her serious illness greatly disturbed her husband. “Life in Death,” published about March 15, presumably was written only a few weeks before its publication, since [page 661:] Poe was editing the magazine in which it appeared and had no cause to delay releasing it — even, indeed, may have been pressed for copy.

Poe's subsequent revision indicates that he may, as with “Eleonora,” have considered it “a good subject spoiled by hurry in the handling.” Revising consisted largely of pruning, but in this case pruning so drastic that one of the two principal themes of the original version was almost completely eliminated, thus changing the focus of the tale and greatly intensifying its effect. He probably decided that the story does not involve any impossibility for which unimaginative readers might prefer an explanation that if is all hallucinatory.§ [page 662:]


(A) Graham's Magazine for April 1842 (20:200-201); (B) Broadway Journal, April 26, 1845 (1:264-265); (C) Works (1850), I, 366-369. PHANTASY-PIECES, title only.

The last version, Griswold's (C), is adopted for this edition. The revision of the first version (A) for the Broadway Journal (B) included the deletion of the long first paragraph (here printed following the notes) and other excisions.

J. H. Ingram, in England, reprinted the earliest version of the tale, although he used Poe's second title.


New York Weekly News, May 10, 1845, from the Broadway Journal. (See G. Thomas Tanselle, Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America, Second Quarter 1962, p. 252.)

THE OVAL PORTRAIT.   [C]   [[n]]   [[v]]


The chateau into which my valet{a} had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those{b} piles of commingled gloom and grandeur(1) which have so long frowned among the Apennines,{c} not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe.(2) To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned.{d} We{e} established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay{f} in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many [page 663:] nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary — in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that{g} I bade Pedro(3) to close the heavy shutters of the room — since it was already night — to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed — and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long — long I read — and devoutly, devotedly{h} I gazed.{i} Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by, and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I {jj}placed it so{jj} as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening{k} into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought — to make sure that my vision had not deceived me — to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for [page 664:] the first flashing of the candles upon that canvass had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle {ll}me at once into waking life.{ll} (4)

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully.(5) The arms, the bosom and even the ends of the radiant hair, melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back ground of the whole. The frame was oval, {mm}richly gilded and filagreed in Moresque.{mm} As a thing{n} of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself.{o} (6) But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea — must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour{p} perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with{q} the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute{r} lifelikeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued and appalled me.{s} With{t} deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and [page 665:] wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee: all light and smiles, and frolicksome as the young fawn: loving and cherishing all things: hating only the Art which was her rival: dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray{u} even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvass only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And he was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastlily{v} in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter, (who had high renown,) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes{w} from the canvass rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvass were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat{x} beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before [page 666:] the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet{y} gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned{z} suddenly {aa}to regard his beloved: — She was dead!{aa}


[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 662:]

Title:  Life in Death. (A; PHANTASY-PIECES)

Motto:  Egli è vivo e parlerebbe se non osservasse la rigola del silentio.

Inscription beneath an Italian picture of St. Bruno (A)   [[n]]

a  my valet / Pedro (A)

b  those fantastic (A)

c  Appennines, (A); Appenines, (B, C) corrected editorially

d  After this: Day by day we expected the return of the family who tenanted it, when the misadventure which had befallen me would, no doubt, be received as sufficient apology for the intrusion. (A)

e  We / Meantime, that this intrusion might be taken in better part, we had (A)

f  lay high (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 663:]

g  that having swallowed the opium, as before told, (A)

h  devoutedly (C) misprint, corrected from A, B

i  After this: I felt meantime, the voluptuous narcotic stealing its way to my brain. I felt that in its magical influence lay much of the gorgeous richness and variety of the frames — much of the ethereal hue that gleamed from the canvas — and much of the wild interest of the book which I perused. Yet this consciousness rather strengthened than impaired the delight of the illusion, while it weakened the illusion itself. (A)

jj ... jj  so placed it (A)

k  ripened (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 664:]

ll ... ll  me into waking life as if with the shock of a galvanic battery. (A)

mm ... mm  richly, yet fantastically gilded and filagreed. (A)

n  work (A)

o  After this: The loveliness of the face surpassed that of the fabulous Houri. (A)

p  an hour / some hours (A)

q  of (A)

r  an absolute / a perfect (A)

s  After this: I could no longer support the sad meaning smile of the half-parted lips, nor the too real lustre of the wild eye. (A)

t  With a (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 665:]

u  pourtray (A, B)

v  ghastily (A)

w  visage (A)

x  sate (A, B)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 666:]

y  he yet / yet he (A)

z  turned himself (A)

aa ... aa  round to his beloved — who was dead. The painter then added — ‘But is this indeed Death?’ ” (A)

[The following variant appears on page 667:]

Initial paragraph of The Oval Portrait (A)

My fever had been excessive and of long duration. All the remedies attainable in this wild Appennine region had been exhausted to no purpose. My valet and sole attendant in the lonely chateau, was too nervous and too grossly unskilful to venture upon letting blood — of which indeed I had already lost too much in the affray with the banditti. Neither could I safely permit him to leave me in search of assistance. At length I bethought me of a little pacquet of opium which lay with my tobacco in the hookahcase; for at Constantinople I had acquired the habit of smoking the weed with the drug. Pedro handed me the case. I sought and found the narcotic. But when about to cut off a portion I felt the necessity of hesitation. In smoking it was a matter of little importance how much was employed. Usually, I had half filled the bowl of the hookah with opium and tobacco cut and mingled intimately, half and half. Sometimes when I had used the whole of this mixture I experienced no very peculiar effects; at other times I would not have smoked the pipe more than two-thirds out, when symptoms of mental derangement, which were even alarming, warned me to desist. But the effect proceeded with an easy gradation which deprived the indulgence of all danger. Here, however, the case was different. I had never swallowed opium before. Laudanum and morphine I had occasionally used, and about them should have had no reason to hesitate. But the solid drug I had never seen employed. Pedro knew no more respecting the proper quantity to be taken, than myself — and thus, in the sad emergency, I was left altogether to conjecture. Still I felt no especial uneasiness; for I resolved to proceed by degrees. I would take a very small dose in the first instance. Should this prove impotent, I would repeat it; and so on, until I should find an abatement of the fever, or obtain that sleep which was so pressingly requisite, and with which my reeling senses had not been blessed for now more than a week. No doubt it was this very reeling of my senses — it was the dull delirium which already oppressed me — that prevented me from perceiving the incoherence of my reason — which blinded me to the folly of defining any thing as either large or small where I had no preconceived standard of comparison. I had not, at the moment, the faintest idea that what I conceived to be an exceedingly small dose of solid opium might, in fact, be an excessively large one. On the contrary I well remember that I judged confidently of the quantity to be taken by reference to the entire quantity of the lump in possession. The portion which, in conclusion, I swallowed, and swallowed without fear, was no doubt a very small proportion of the piece which I held in my hand.

[page 666, continued:]


Title:  In the first version, the title “Life in Death” may be from Coleridge's “Ancient Mariner.” See “Berenicë,” n. 11.

Motto:  The epigraph of the first version means “He is alive and would speak did he not observe the rule of silence.” St. Bruno (1040?-1101) was the founder of the Carthusian order, which requires silence of its members except at certain specified times. Poe included the quotation in “Pinakidia,” number 111 (SLM, August 1836, p. 579), with the comment “Malherbe has taken the hint in his epigram upon a picture of St. Catherine,” but Malherbe's verses (Poésies, number lxxviii) have little relation to the quoted sentence. A similar remark — on seeing Houdon's statue of St. Bruno for the Carthusian church in Rome — was quoted in a memoir of the sculptor read before the Academy of Beaux-Arts (Paris) in 1829 by its permanent secretary: “Elle [the statue] parleroit, disoit le pape Clément XIV, si la règle de son ordre ne lui prescrivoit pas le silence” (A. C. Quatremire de Quincy, Recueil de notices historiques ..., Paris 1834, p. 393). The remark has been repeated in a number of French and English accounts of Hendon, but Poe's Italian source has not been found. The quotation was used as a motto for “Life in Death,” apparently to illustrate the idea of a “speaking image” (the narrator in “The Spectacles” exclaims, “Ah, this is indeed the speaking image of my beloved!”), but because it was only superficially pertinent to the tale it was discarded in the revision.

1.  Compare “The Coliseum,” line 9: “... grandeur, gloom and glory,” and see also “Eleonora” at n. 16.

2.  The scene of terrifying experiences with forces of evil described in Ann Ward Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) was an ancient castle in the Apennines. One of the horrors glimpsed by the heroine in chapter 26 was a recumbent form she took for the victim of a murder — a figure which in chapter 55 turned out to be of wax. (Everyman edition)

3.  Pedro is also the name of a character in “The Bargain Lost.”

4.  For other references to the galvanic battery, mentioned here in the first version, see “A Decided Loss,” “Some Words With a Mummy,” and “The Premature Burial.”

5.  Although the picture Poe had in mind was by Robert Sully, most readers must have thought of his more famous uncle, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), whose work Robert's resembled. Compare “Philosophy of Furniture” at n. 14. [page 667:]

6.  Houris (see the variant here), the black-eyed women of the Mahometan paradise, are referred to also in “Israfel” and “Ligeia.”


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 660:]

*  “Morella,” “Mystification,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “William Wilson” preceded it.

  See Phillips, Poe the Man, I, 691. Miss Phillips was in touch with Miss Sully and located the picture in an antique shop on Fourth Avenue, New York; but it was sold sometime after 1920, and she did not obtain a photograph.

  This suggestion of my friend Jay B. Hubbell was recorded in my Selected Poetry and Prose of ... Poe (1951), p. 421. The story appears in various accounts — see, for example, the Nouvelle Biographie générale (1866), but we have not yet found it in print where Poe could easily have seen it.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 661:]

§  A succession of interpretations of the meaning of the story may be mentioned. Patrick Quinn, in The French Face of Edgar Poe (1957), p. 261, holds that “The interest that lies at the heart of this story is a typical Poe interest, and it has no relevance to moral ideas.” On p. 266 he explains that “in the living economy of matter as Poe conceived it, the Whole — ‘vast, animate and sentient’ — continues always to exist, although its parts die in feeding one another and in so bringing about new living structures. In ‘The Oval Portrait,’ the life of the woman was drained from her body, but instead of being dissipated this life was transferred to her portrait. The quantity of life remains constant. This principle is as basic to the story as it is to the cosmological treatise Eureka.” Later he adds, “To see the organic in the inorganic — this is one of the typical modulations in our experience of the world which Poe makes possible in his stories.”

David Rein (“Poe and Virginia Clemm,” Bucknell Review, May 1958) analyzes “Berenice;” “Morella,” “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Eleonora” in order to show that “Poe was expressing his feelings about his own marriage to Virginia, was confirming what the biographical evidence indicates, that Virginia did not adequately qualify as his wife.” He interprets “The Oval Portrait” as “a remorseful story about a young artist who mistreated his wife” and holds that it marks an abrupt change in Poe's feelings toward Virginia after the threat of loss occasioned by her illness.

In Modern Language Notes, January 1959, Seymour Gross studies Poe's changes, pointing out that “all of Poe's revisions tighten up the moral framework of the tale,” which he calls “a parable of the moral deadliness of artistic monomania.” Quoting A. H. Quinn (Poe, p. 331) on the similarity of its theme to Hawthorne's story “The Birthmark” (March 1843) which, Quinn said, “is apparent, but Hawthorne's treatment is so different that there can be no question of plagiarism,” Gross goes on to remark that Poe quite probably saw in Hawthorne's story “a memorably deft and suggestive handling of a theme which he himself had botched in ‘Life in Death’ ” — and was thereby challenged to do as well in polishing and tightening his own imperfect tale.

[G. R. Thompson in his introduction to Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1970, p. 39, says that “The Oval Portrait” “has a carefully constructed dramatic and ironic frame around it, so that the tale can also be read as the dream of a man delirious from pain and lack of sleep.” See also his paper in English Language Notes, December 1968.]





[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Life in Death (The Oval Portrait))