Text: Joan Dayan, “Poe, Locke and Kant,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 30-44 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 30, unnumbered:]



“ ’Tis true, on Words is still our whole debate,

Disputes of Me or Te, of aut or at,

To sound or sink in cano, O or A,

Or give up Cicero to C or K.”

— Pope, The Dunciad

In the battle between the praised “philosopher proper — one whose frenzy takes a very determinate turn” (H16: 293) and the damned and despised litterateur of Boston (the “mystics for mysticism’s sake”), Poe plays out to excess the faults he condemns. This parodic bent — a plea for the plain style couched in layers of hyperbole — has cost him the careful reading he deserves as scientist of method in a society sunk in feeling. Poe’s critics forget that the antic disposition manifested in his satirical account, “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” is reduplicated in the cant of those tales sometimes judged as serious expressions of his “poetic principle.” In “How to Write a Blackwood Article” Poe delights in exposing his own scraps of learning as well as those he mocks: “it was all low — very! No profundity, no reading, no metaphysics — nothing which the learned call spirituality, and which the unlearned stigmatise as cant. [Dr. M. says I ought to spell ‘cant’ with a capital K — but I know better]” (M2: 338). And he playfully directs the composition of the proper tale: “The tone metaphysical is also a good one. If you know any big words this is your chance for them . . . . Say something about objectivity and subjectivity. Be sure and abuse a man called Locke . . . . A little reading of the ‘Dial’ will carry you a great way . . . . Put in something about the Supernal Oneness. Don’t say a syllable about the Infernal Twoness” (M2: 341). Here, Poe mimes the pretensions of the Orphicists (and perhaps even his own call for “Supernal Beauty”), advises one to dive deep for the inexpressible (signified by a descent into the pages of the “Dial,” chief journal of the Transcendentalists), and warns against the clarities of a man named Locke.

Now this Locke figures in some of Poe’s most phantasmal thrillers. What we learn in re-reading the so-called “Gothic” tales is that Poe uses fiction to address philosophical and linguistic issues.(1) His own fight against vague, high-sounding language grounds itself in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Melville would later tacitly acknowledge the import of Poe’s conjunction of cant/Kant, joining of the jargon of ineffables to the Kantian idealism translated [page 31:] into the peculiar Transcendentalism of nineteenth-century America.(2) As Poe blasts through all idealisms with a wildly canting overflow of words, Melville overworks the language of Pierre in confrontation with the Transcendental optimism of the apostles of thought (the “speculative nut crackers”). Melville like Poe gives “cant” as surrogate for “Kant”: in Book 19 of Pierre, Melville describes the inhabitants of “The Church of the Apostles,” who compensate for “physical forlornness, by resolutely revelling in the region of blissful ideals.” playing on Poe’s accord between jargon and idealism, he continues:

Often groping in vain in their pockets, they cannot but give in to the Descartian vortices; while the abundance of leisure in their attics (physical and figurative), unite with the leisure in their stomachs, to fit them in an eminent degree for that undivided attention indispensable to the proper digesting of the sublimated Categories of Kant (can’t) is the one great palpable fact in their pervadingly impalpable lives.(3)

In this essay I will consider Poe’s fiction as a discourse on method. When Poe is most dogmatic, he is most oblique: his most obviously supernatural tales are more accurately a criticism of a repressive culture. Against those who “prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition” (H14: 194), Poe takes great pains to establish himself as nay-sayer fallen from the eighteenth-century empyrean, confronting a literary establishment that took little notice of him. As critic, he sets forth a program of literary purification with the intent to detach “criticism” from its attachment to “Orphicism, or Dialism, or Emersonianism, or any other pregnant compound indicative of confusion worse confounded” (H11: 6-7). He mocks the orphic talkers who blur the bounds of sense and thus render language imprecise: “we earnestly ask if bread-and-butter be the vast IDEA in question . . . for we have often observed that when a SEER has to speak of so usual a thing as bread-and-butter, he can never be induced to mention it outright” (H11: 253). Or again, “What is worth thinking is distinctly thought: what is distinctly thought, can and should be distinctly expressed, or should not be expressed at all” (H12: 6). Reacting against his contemporaries’ abuse of words, Poe conducts his attack as did Locke on the level of language.

Procedural strategies culled from those eighteenth-century satirists who made the most of Lockean assumptions give Poe the conjoint humor and awe through which he invents his new mode of instruction. Arguing for all “that seems akin to the conservatism of half a century ago,” he laments that those “justifiable decora of composition . . . [page 32:] which in the time of Pope were considered as prima facie and indispensable indications of genius” are now regarded suspiciously (In “The American Scholar,” for example, Emerson pitted “the style of Pope, Johnson, of Gibbon” against Romantic genius, as “cold and pedantic” to “blood-warm.”)(4) Poe’s “genius” is not irreconcilable with “artistic skill.” Aware that “the finest quality of Thought is its self-cognizance” (H16: 204), he fights for a language of “Common Sense,” what he calls “ordinary language” (H11: 252).

What then of the lapses in Poe’s fiction, the wordy raptures of his tortured narrators, their obvious recourse to abstraction and vague phraseology? If we seek out the method in these tales, we find that the most bathetic exempla compose his strategy, a devious undoing of the vagaries of mysticism and inflated rhetoric. In his most “Gothic” tales Poe is trying to kill off, or as he puts it, “use up” the language of his contemporaries, the blustering afflatus of the Frogpondians (his name for the Boston Transcendentalists).(5) If Poe mimes canting so well that the reader believes these ethereal approximations to be the writer’s own, this technique simply proves his talent in converting the language of idealism into a cause for madness and source of vulgarity.

Against what he calls in Eureka “the monomaniac grasping at the infinite” (H16: 292), Poe will create a narrator well-honed in the art of canting, a monomaniac who pursues the absolute in the form of a melancholy, erudite lady. The common setting for these narratives is Locke’s “dark room.” A worm rising from the depths of “the one drawer of a cabinet,”(6) the ruminating, though restricted mind, ever remains in that “closet shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without” (2.11.7, 211-212). These narrow, circumscribed settings, whether chambers or oblong boxes are spatial images of mind; and Poe’s preoccupation with premature burial and the sudden awakening inside the crib of confinement is an allegory for that delimitation of mentality apparent everywhere in Locke’s epistemology.

Locke’s madman, like Poe’s monomaniac, is quite normal except for one obsession-an obsession manifested for both Poe and Locke in terms of false ideas caused by obscure and undefined words. As Locke describes the madman:

Hence it comes to pass that a man who is very sober and of right understanding in all other things, may in one particular be as frantic as any in Bedlam; if either by any sudden very strong impression, or long fixing his fancy upon one sort of thoughts, incoherent ideas, have been cemented together so powerfully, as to remain united. (2.11.11, 209-210) [page 33:]

The Poeian monomaniac dramatizes the dangers implicit in “the exquisite jargon” Locke warned against. If “the demands of truth are severe” (H11: 70), as Poe writes in a passage oddly reminiscent of Locke’s elevation of “judgement” above “wit,” of “the severe rules of truth and good reason” over delusion (2.11.2, 203-204), then these romantic ladies must first suffer under the scrutiny of a discerning judgment in confrontation with wit. What separates attacks what combines, and in the oscillation between restraint and expansion of mind (or reason and fancy), Poe constructs his plot in the shadow of Locke’s attack on sublime conceits and exalted strains — against “all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented” (3.10.32, 146).

Poe gives us a clue to the characterization of most of his narrators when he argues in his review of Longfellow’s “Ballads and Other Poems,” against the sin of decking truth in “gay robes.” To do so, he writes, is “to render her a harlot. It is but making her a flaunting paradox to wreathe her in gems and flowers.” He then verifies his words by giving the reader the kind of style that can house such a primary, plain and strict content:

— we feel the necessity, in enforcing this truth, of descending from metaphor. Let us then be simple and distinct. To convey ‘the true’ we are required to dismiss from the attention all inessentials. We must be perspicuous, precise, terse. We need concentration rather than expansion of mind. We must be calm, unimpassioned, unexcited — in a word, we must be in that peculiar mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical. (H11: 70)

We recognize the technique of Poe’s rational talkers who insist that they will be precise, that they are calm: “Hearken! and observe how stealthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story” (M3: 792); and the killer of cat and wife assures, “My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events” (M3: 849). We could of course go on; the oddest and most exaggerated tales always begin with claims for plain discourse.

The narrating “I” who reasons, distinguishes and discerns, who can break down wholes into parts, is a fanatic — and such a clarifying, determining tendency is only one stage, the most obvious, in a progression of extremes. Dismissing any mere happiness as deception, this character makes the myrtles (or his spouse) wither under Locke’s “labor of thought.” Yet in the course of the tale, Poe allows this same [page 35:] harsh raconteur to use (perhaps unwittingly) the very implements of deceit, the arts that “dupe and play the wag with the senses,” to recall Swift’s “Digression on Madness.” As acolyte of the beautiful lady of mystic knowledge, this analyst becomes prone to the vision and fancy, the prophetic dreams and sortilege, that once seemed so alien to his personality. Contrary to “separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another,” the narrator finds himself caught in scenes of collapsing identities and confounded likeness (2.11.2, 203). He sees Berenice’s teeth here, there and everywhere, and finds the first Morella reproduced in the simulacrum of his own imaginings. Ligeia, whose existence is composed of “a circle of analogies,” returns to deny difference and to reaffirm her identity not only with her rival Rowena but with the narrator himself.

Through a witty juxtaposition or mixing up of wit and judgment, Poe effects the conversion that is itself underlying the interaction between self and object in each tale. As the narrator sinks into the object of his scrutiny (a disease that overtakes him as he talks), his powers of concentration falter, his mind digresses, rendered impotent by the very dissipation his “beloved” undergoes. Indeed, as she fades into a kind of neutral gray of non-being (in Lockean terms, left only with those original or primary qualities of body), his language assumes all the superfluities and colorful harangues appropriate to “rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit” (3.10.34, 146).

Poe’s deflation of illusory ideals and exposure of imprecise language (the two cannot be separated: a murky ideal produces murky language) becomes certain in these dialogues between the observing, willful narrator and an apparently passive external and female object. The narrator of these tales does finally “cant it,” meaning that he places his story in the special phraseology of romantic love and of the Transcendental “cuttlefishes of profundity.” And Poe’s male narrators are indeed haunted, possessed by those active spirits of secret knowledge; but this filling is in truth an emptying — a destructive influx of a language (note the “filling up” of “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” M2: 343), corrupt and gone to seed. We might be tempted to say that language has driven the narrator crazy — that the superfluities of spirit (in its worse manifestations) have taken over his mind and overturned his reason. “Cant” also means, according to the OED, “a sudden movement which tends to or results in, tilting or turning over.” The lady’s cant (though presented to us indirectly through the narrator’s recanting) leads to the violent revolution in the minds of Poe’s most wordy narrators. [page 35:]

Poe is preoccupied with correct language; therefore each narrator makes the same mistakes. Guilty of the same kind of redundancies, haunted by the same spirits, he always digresses in the same way. For Poe these digressions do not merely mark a surprising ghost story but the overreaching of dead utterances. This radical reuse of Romantic ideals of beauty or wisdom privileges Poe’s anti-idealist propensities in a radical reinterpretation of Gothic haunting. Although these hauntings invite us to seek a mysterious or elevated first cause, their presentation leaves us with no more than material disintegration — a collapse that the diction enacts. What the narrator most often beholds with horror are similes, syllables, types and expressions. A citation from Swift’s “Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” will prepare us for Poe’s own critical fictions on the Canter’s Art:

I shall now Discourse briefly, by what kind of Practices the Voice is best governed, towards the Composition and Improvement of the Spirit: for, without a competent Skill in turning and toning each Word, and Syllable, and Letter, to their due Cadence, the whole Operation is incompleat . . . . For, it is to be understood, that in the Language of the Spirit, Cant and Droning supply the place of Sense and Reason, in the Language of Men: Because, in spiritual Harangues, the Disposition of the Words according to the Art of Grammar, hath not the least Use, but the Skill and Influence wholly lie in the Choice and Cadence of the Syllables . . . .(7)

Poe takes Swift’s instructions for how to “draw sighs from the multitudes” — “The Force, or Energy” of the utterance found “wholly in dwelling, and dilating upon Syllables and Letters” — to enact the plight of his own narrators whose hearts are pierced by the “forcible Effects” of “a single Vowel” (p. 279). The language of awe becomes the language of damnation. This is the world of the unregenerate who damned to repeat the torment, has gone mad in the attempt to say — to name the unnameable. Reading the physical world as if it were a visual language, he shudders before the effects of utterance. The prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum” perceives the black-robed judges’ lips as they “writhe with a deadly locution” (M2: 681). William Wilson is struck by the “character, the tone, the key, of those few, simple, and familiar, yet whispered syllables” that strike his soul “with the shock of a galvanic battery” (M2: 439).

As readers we must not forget that in Poe’s world, consecration (the fetishistic regard of the lady), becomes through the narration equivalent to magic incantation. The OED places the first use of the word “cant” in the Latin “cant-us, singing, song, chant,” and in The [page 36:] Spectator Steele traces the word to “one Andrew Cant . . . a Presbyterian Minister in some Illiterate part of Scotland”: “Since Mas. Cant’s time, it [cant] has been understood in a larger Sense, and signifies all sudden Exclamations, Whinings, Unusual Tones, and in fine all Praying and Preaching like the unlearned of the Presbyterians . . . .”(8) In “Ligeia” and “Morella” the narrator’s canting, joins the sirenic cadences of the lady. In fact, in these tales of mystery, his sing-song disquisitions and monotonous intonings are ironically mirrored in the mystic ladies’ own sonorities. Through the curious colloquy between subject and object, the narrator seems to imbibe a certain talent for muttering obscure, equivocal and unsteady terms, just as he forever sits in libraries filled with the inherited words of metempsychosis and Rosicrucian demonology.

Morella and especially Ligeia are mediums for a certain kind of magical, murderous cant.

Morella utters “some low, singular words,” and the hearer shudders “at those too unearthly tones” (M2: 230). Ligeia too is cast in the role of orator imprinting inscrutable notae, “wild words” on his brain. Significantly, it is, he insists, not just the “almost magical melody, modulation, distinctness and placidity of her very low void” that he remembers with greatest awe, but “her manner of utterance” (M2: 315). And since we never hear Ligeia speak, except through the transmission or revision of the monomaniac, the manner of his speech can tell us more about the wonders of this utterance — and its negative attributes — than what he says. “Ligeia” is the feminine of the Homeric Greek adjective ligys, meaning canorous, high-sounding or shrill. Ligeia, then, is a siren; no mere singer, she is a sorceress who enthralls men with her spells.(9) Poe apostrophizes this Ligeia in “Al Aaraaf’:

Ligeia! Ligeia!

My beautiful one!

Whose harshest idea

Will to melody run . . .

Ligeia! wherever

Thy image may be,

No magic shall sever

Thy music from thee.

Thou hast bound many eyes

In a dreamy sleep —

(M1: 109-110, 11.100103/112-117) [page 37:]

In the tale “Ligeia” the song of enthrallment contextualizes itself in a jargon synonymous with that cant condemned by both Poe and Locke. That Poe must create a narrator who is indeed seduced by a “name” and destroyed by its vague sounds reminds us of his concern with the abuses of discourse. The bawling and muttering descanters of Steele and Swift add an ironic twist to Poe’s choice of the name “Ligeia.” As the acolyte of Ligeia moves “onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden,” groping through “the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed,” the heroine sickens, her eyes dim, and he laments: “Wanting the radiant lustre of her eyes, letters, lambent and golden, grew duller than Saturnian lead” (M2: 316). Give Poe’s eighteenth-century bent, it is not surprising that his subtext in this inverse alchemy is Pope’s Dunciad, where the Goddess Dulness prepares “To hatch a new Saturnian age of Lead” (1,1.25).

The narrator of “Morella” initiates his story by failing to define. He claims a “deep yet most singular affection” for the lady but adds, “my soul from our first meeting, burned with fires it had never before known; but the fires were not of Eros, and bitter and tormenting to my spirit was the gradual conviction that I could in no manner define their unusual meaning, or regulate their vague intensity” (M2: 229). Whereas in “Berenice” the narrator opposes the claims of Eros to those of mind, here he leaves the expected antonym unsupplied, suggesting the inadequacy to plague him throughout his “recollection” — a “meaning” that cannot be defined compounded by an “intensity” too “vague” to be moderated. The connection between an indistinct idea, undefinable terms and the disease of a mind enthused by such studied obscurities (the whispered nothings of a mystic Morella) set the stage for this discourse of unintelligibles.

Morella, consequently, is not merely erudite; an interminable talker, she is more accurately a transmitter of empty speculation through that unintelligible cant that brings confusion into her disciple’s mind. As Locke explains this necessary “confusion worse confounded”: “Besides, there is no such way to gain admittance, or give defence to strange and absurd doctrines, as to guard them round about with legions of obscure, doubtful, and undefined words . . . . For untruth being unacceptable to the mind of man, there is no other defence left for absurdity, but obscurity” (3.10.9, 128). The texts of this woman from Presburg, home of black magic, were “a number of those mystical writings . . . usually considered the mere dross of the early German literature”: they become the narrator’s own “favorite and constant study.” The inexplicable transference of her preferences to his own results in his inability to express anything with certainty. Each assertion is no sooner stated than cast into doubt: “In all this, / if I err not, / my reason had little to do. My convictions, / or I forget myself, [page 38:] / were in no manner acted upon by the ideal, nor was any tincture of the mysticism which I read, to be discovered, / unless I am greatly mistaken, / either in my deeds or in my thoughts” (M2: 230). His failed attempt to separate the “ideal” from his reason proves the fatal intercourse between his reasoning and his mania (what he knows and what he dreams). In Lockean terms, madness arises, we recall, through the cementing together of ideas not naturally related; they then fill up the mind with — to use the jargon of Swift’s Grub Street Hack — “a redundancy of vapours”: “and the confusion of two different ideas, which a customary connexion of them in their minds hath to them made in effect but one, fills their heads with false views, and their reasonings with false consequences” (2.33.18, 235). Once deluded into believing his reason intact, the narrator abandons himself to Morelia’s cant: “persuaded of this, I abandoned myself implicitly to the guidance of my wife, and entered with an unflinching heart into the intricacies of her studies” (p. 230). He describes his “poring over forbidden pages”; he feels “ a forbidden spirit enkindling within,” and we now read Poe’s imitation of the language of vision.

This very literary pastime has an unending, inescapable quality. Morella would “rake up from the ashes of a dead philosophy some low, singular words,” whose “strange meaning,” the narrator stresses, “burned themselves in upon my memory.” Her verbiage becomes his curse, as unnerving and ominous as the old man’s evil eye in “The Tell-Tale Heart”: “And then, hour after hour, would I linger by her side, and dwell upon the music of her voice — until, at length, its melody was tainted with terror; and there fell a shadow upon my soul — and I grew pale, and shuddered inwardly at those too unearthly tones” (p. 230). Her music, its melody and tones — mere sounds — cause the stain upon his soul. And with his transformation, the required conversion occurs: “And thus, joy suddenly faded into horror, and the most beautiful became the most hideous as Hinnom became Gehenna.”

As in “Berenice,” this narrator might wonder with Egaeus, “How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?” Indeed his growing hatred for Morella causes her decay, but what causes his revulsion? Its source can only be the manner of her discourse (“indeed the time had now arrived when the mystery of my wife’s manner oppressed me as a spell”) and, further, the “character of those disquisitions” she culls from volumes of forgotten lore. As her body fails, his soul sickens. He looks into her eyes and sinks into himself, “giddy with the giddiness of one who gazes downward into some dreary and unfathomable abyss.” And the more he gazes, the more fiendish he becomes. In this sage of his augmenting desire and her diminishing life, his increasing will for her death and her apparently passive decline, Morelia’s death-bed scene becomes a struggle for control through [page 39:] utterance. Overcome by her words, the narrator is reduced to repeating one name, “Morella.”

Ligeia, described as the lady of romance, lures her love beyond life into a more-than-human gnosis. The first few pages of the tale, a paean to ideal beauty, develop through the effects of indescribability. The narrator’s speechlessness initially turns on the difficult retrieval of a fading, remote past. Through his insistence that he cannot fittingly remember, he wills a poverty of discourse: “I cannot . . . remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia” / “my memory is feeble through much suffering” / “I cannot now bring these points to mind” / “a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed” / “I but indistinctly recall . . . — what wonder that I have utterly forgotten” (M2: 310-311). And his “wildly romantic offering on the shrine of the most passionate devotion” is never to ask her last name (311).

The excesses of this language travesty the high-flown style of romantic love. And Poe, whose criticism most often praised that language in accord with nature’s intentions, here exaggerates the expression of sacred furor. Although this language might be interpreted as a fit example of what Poe means by exalting the soul “not into passion, but into a conception of pure beauty” (as he describes the effect of Tennyson’s “Oenone,” H11: 254), he demonstrates that this ether-like medium exalts — but not without turning the one exalted into a madman. Recall that Poe’s argument against Hawthorne’s “mysticism” is based on a call for correct allegory: “Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a very profound under-current so as never to interfere with the upper one without our own volition, so as never to show itself unless called to the surface, there only, for the proper use of fictitious narrative, is it available at all” (H13: 148). If Poe’s “surface” or “upper-current” here is evocative of the “spiritual” and “ideal,” we can be sure that Poe means something else — the point of this fiction is not what it seems. The deep “under-current” can only be unveiled by stripping away the obvious — those fascinating appearances that delude the reader as well as the narrator.

The moment he announces that “one dear topic . . . on which my memory fails me not,” his personification of a spectre and Poe’s ridicule of cant is under way. As well as taking the most suggestively “romantic,” fanciful and idealistic material for his subject (inexpressible, undying love), he turns it on itself to take his stand along with Locke against “enthusiasm . . . founded neither on reason nor divine revelation, but rising from the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain” (4.19.7, 432). “Buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is [page 40:] by that sweet word alone — by Ligeia — that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more.” The name alone annihilates sense, and reminds us that this narrator’s words are the real phantoms that will startle and confound the reader. Divested of materiality, “slender . . . even emaciated,” Ligeia “came and departed as a shadow” (M2: 310-311). Through a process of a kind of essentialization, she becomes a sound, a shadow, a lone “marble hand” and finally, two uncommonly giant eyes.

Her face is portrayed as a compound of indefinables: “the radiance of an opium dream — an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos” (M2: 311). And Poe’s “intensities” here seize upon what he called the “tone transcendental”: “Hint everything — assert nothing” (M2: 342). The details of her portrait, a close analysis of her face alone, read like a monument to varying discursive types of the ideal lady. A collocation of stock formulae, this pile-up of cliches further artifices his lady out of existence. This portrait is a highly textual satire on the cant that betrays a mind befogged. Obsessed by certain terms, the lover cites one of Poe’s own favorite quotations: “‘There is no exquisite beauty,’ says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty, ‘without some strangeness in the proportion’.” He then takes apart Bacon’s quotation and amplifies its jargon: “although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange’” (M2: 311-312). Unattached to any clear and distinct idea, his words remain insignificant, floating somewhere in a “vortex of mysticism” (H11: 254).

Poe, however, makes certain that the narrator’s plight is embodied in the relations between his own texts. In reusing the popular stuff of Gothic fiction, Poe becomes involved in his own compulsion to repeat. A look at these lineaments of desire reveals a startling sameness in every image of woman presented. In this rhapsody, Ligeia becomes no more than a chimera constructed out of the impossible extremes of a depraved imagination, an extravagance Poe will later write into “The Spectacles,” a parody of a nearly blind lover unaware of the cosmeticized hag before him: “The countenance was a surpassingly beautiful one! Those large luminous eyes! — that proud Grecian nose! — those dark luxuriant curls! — “ (M3: 909). Ligeia is made up of a “lofty and pale forehead”; “skin rivalling the purest ivory”; “raven-black . . . glossy . . . luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses,” which evoke “the full force of the Homeric epithet ‘hyacinthine! “‘ Her nose is outlined as perfectly as the “graceful medalions of the Hebrews”; her chin is Greek, its contours traced to the vision of the dreaming Cleomenes. By means [page 41:] of the bizarre image of “harmoniously curved nostrils speaking the free spirit,” we are led to that yoking of abstract and concrete so much a part of Poe’s scheme: “Here was indeed the triumph of all things heavenly — the magnificent turn of the short upper lip — the soft, voluptuous slumber of the under — the dimples which sported, and the color which spoke — the teeth glancing back, with a brilliancy almost startling, every ray of the holy light which fell upon them” (p. 312). In this description of the “sweet mouth,” we recall Berenice’s teeth and their strained collocation of heavenly and demonic (a death’s head vision captured brilliantly in “The Spectacles”: “The magic of a lovely form in woman — the necromancy of female gracefulness,” M3: 889). In this picture of sporting dimples, speaking colors and teeth glancingly reflecting some unidentified holy light, Poe turns the jargon of spirit round on itself.

When the narrator confronts the memory of Ligeia’s eyes, he reveals the heart of his obsession. Her “divine orbs” recall the neo-platonic paradox of a love, glance or smile that simultaneously kills and quickens. In looking into these “star eyes,” the narrator sinks from thought to thought. As these eyes shrink and dilate intermittently, the narrator’s language alternately expands and contracts. In this ritual of ever-intensifying thought, he says, these eyes were “far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race”; and further, “They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Hourjahad.” Yet this exalted beauty is held suspect; “ — in my heated fancy thus it appeared perhaps — “ he writes, answering her excitement (the eyes’ peculiar fullness became noticeable only “in moments of intense excitement”), with his own. He then turns away from the physical, however, and denies sensationalist trappings in more mystifying verbiage: “The ‘strangeness,’ however, which I found in the eyes, was of a nature distinct from the formation, or the color, or the brilliancy of the features, and must, after all, be referred to the expression” (p. 313). As the narrator of “Berenice” displaced the concrete gaping mouth and exposed teeth by an indefinite — “a smile of peculiar meaning” — here the narrator escapes into words, reducing the objects of sense to a mere word. Obsessed now by a sign that signifies nothing, he gives vent to his passion: “Ah, word of no meaning! behind whose vast latitude of mere sound we intrench our ignorance of so much of the spiritual. The expression of the eyes of Ligeia! How for long hours have I pondered upon it! How have I . . . struggled to fathom it!” Much more safely entangled in this labyrinth of unintelligibles than in any more sensuous roots, he can ask, as did the narrator of “Berenice” in vague recollection of an unspeakable deed: “What was it — that something more profound than the well of Democritus — which lay within the pupils of my beloved? What was it? I was possessed with a passion to discover. [page 42:] Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers” (p. 313).

If in Eureka, Poe attempts to “periphrase the conception for which we struggle in the word ‘Universe,”’ here the narrator desires to circumvolve the idea in Ligeia’s “expression,” “that sentiment such as I felt always aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs” (p. 314). He chooses to extend the range and influence of those eyes through analogy, moving through varying degrees of reference and finding “in the commonest objects of the universe, a circle of analogies to that expression.” His mode of returning in determines that monomaniac iteration described in “Berenice” as a stubborn “returning in upon the original object as a centre” (M2: 212). Unable to define the sentiment aroused by those eyes, he recognizes it “in the survey of a rapidly-growing vine — in the contemplation of a moth, a chrysalis, a stream of running water.” “I have felt it,” he continues, “in the ocean; in the falling of a meteor. I have felt it in the glances of unusually aged people” (314). The narrator affects the pietistic jargon of an ineffable ideal, circling round what is neither formed nor form. Poe locates both the humor and the horror in this language of unutterables. Later, in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” he explicitly connects an “intensity of interest” in certain phenomena and a specific kind of repetition reminiscent of Ligeia’s fanatic scrutinizes “In the quivering of a leaf — in the hue of a blade of grass — in the shape of a trefoil — in the humming of a bee — in the gleaming of a dew-drop — in the breathing of the wind — in the faint odors that came from the forest — there came a whole universe of suggestion — a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and immethodical thought” (M3: 943). Such a pursuit (signified by the sequence of “in” circlings) would be categorized by Locke — and by Poe the ironist as one of those “excursions into the incomprehensible Inane” (2.21.1, 308).

In reading these documents of a mind undone, we should start with Locke’s own question: “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: — How comes it to be furnished?” (2.1.2, 122). At the inception of every telling, Poe’s narrator or mind is “the yet empty cabinet which comes to be furnished with ideas and language, the materials about which to exercise its discursive faculty” (1.1.5, 48-49). Poe’s tales should be read as varying attempts to enter the mind, to break into the room or repository filled with the dregs of remembrance (or recycled textual conventions) and there to commemorate this palimpsest defiled.

His narrators, like the hypothetical confessor of “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” turn mind inside out to make the page inscribed equal to a mind engraved with the traces of sensory impressions. “The sound drives him mad, and, accordingly, pulling out his tablets, he [page 43:] gives a record of his sensations” (M2: 340). Here the Lockean exchange between a once blank page or empty cabinet and the world of sensations (a box filled with Berenice’s teeth or a tomb filled with Morella’s name) introduces the mind’s tablet as synonymous with the pages of the Poeian text. Besides opening up his narrator’s mind so that the reader can examine the marks on a once white slate, Poe invents a narratorial voice composed of the histrionic cadences of other texts. In dragging out the retranscriptions of invention, demanding that we see each tale or utterance through the layers of an earlier one, its words superimposed upon past words, Poe transcribes a discourse that traps us into suffering from the effects of a ponderous, all-consuming and unforgettable cant of Beauty. While using his narrator to disincarnate the lady (reducing her either to teeth in “Berenice” or to no more than eyes in “Ligeia” or to the syllables of a name in “Morella”), Poe puts his reader in the position of dismantling the prose connected with her.

Beyond this satiric reuse of a Gothic love of tale-telling, combined with the enthusiast’s mystifications, however, Poe’s best-known narrators are indeed sinners, violators of the reverenced donnés of their culture. In a most interesting way they apply the knife to Poe’s literary enemies and to “the customary cant of the day” (H11: 253). The Romantic artist’s annihilation of his lady the better to address the unattainable idea confined in her too fleshly frame turns into an exquisite experiment to test the assumptions of Locke, while affirming Poe’s argument against those misusers of language, the mystifiers of Concord.

[page 43, continued:]


1.  For a study of Poe’s critique of romance as revealed most forcefully in Eureka and in his tales of women, see Joan Dayan, Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (New York, 1987). Since this essay was accepted a few years before publication of Fables, some of its ideas are treated in the book.

2.  As Emerson explained: “The Idealism of the present day acquired its name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant of Konigsberg, who replied to the sceptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself; and he denominated them Transcendental forms” — “The Transcendentalist,” quoted in O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism [page 44:] in New England (New York, 1956), p. 127. For more on Poe’s argument against Emerson, see Fables of Mind.

3.  Pierre, or the Ambiguities, ed. Harrison Hayford et al. (Evanston, 1971), p. 267.

4.  The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson; forew. Tremaine McDowell (New York, 1950), p. 61.

5.  That Poe means “use up” to annihilate is made clear in a letter of 1835: “I had occasion (pardon me) to ‘use up’ — the N. Y. Mirror, whose Editor’s Norman Leslie did not please me — and the Philadelphia Gazette, which, being conducted by one of the subeditors of the Knickerbocker, thinks it its duty to abuse all rival magazines” (O1: 101).

6.  Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1689], ed., A. C. Fraser (New York, 1959), 2.2.3, 146. (Hereafter cited within the text.)

7.  Swift, “A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit,” A Tale of a Tub, ed. A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith. 2nd. ed. (London, 1958), pp. 277-278.

8.  Steele, The Spectator, No. 147, 18 August 1711, ed. Donald F. Bond (London, 1965), p. 80. Cf. Addison on the “unintelligible Cant” of the spiritualists: “I was once engaged in Discourse with a Rosicrucian about the Great Secret” (No. 574, 30 July 1714, pp. 561-562).

9.  The Glanville epigraph that recurs throughout “Ligeia,” though Mabbott supposes it to be invented by Poe, is of interest in Poe’s compound of Glanville’s name and his own citation. Glanville’s Sadducismus Triumphatus — a vindication of the existence of witches and witchcraft in the seventeenth century (1667) — remains in the background as yet another clue to the unravelling of “Ligeia”: If Ligeia survives (through her will), is it as a witch?





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