Text: April Selley, “Poe and the Will,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 94-102 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 94, unnumbered:]



The image of the perennially pubescent Poe, once fostered even by serious literary critics, may strongly interest high school students. But more advanced students will probably not appreciate Poe unless his works offer more than “The Legend.” Therefore teachers must introduce students to the artistically and psychologically mature and perceptive Poe. In thus helping Poe to come out of the cellar, educators can also show how his work is distinctly American and indeed part of the mainstream of American literature.

I wish to concentrate on Poe’s short fiction in which, I think, lies his greatest — and most American — achievement as an artist. My most useful approach to the tales is considering them in the context of free will. Poe’s interest in the operation of the will has been noted by Henry Bamford Parkes and more recently by Brian Barbour. Barbour maintains that Poe’s nine or ten greatest and most characteristic tales “embody the central value of the self-willing, atomistic, autonomous individual, but they wrench us out of the lenitive atmosphere of American optimism to focus our attention on narrators whose willfulness expresses deep disorder within. We are obliged to see the moral consequences, the dark, hidden possibilities in what we believe.”(1)

Thus Poe is concerned with Emerson’s concept of self-reliance, although, to be sure, he had serious objections to Emerson’s Transcendentalism. But “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” suggest that Poe’s differences from Emerson were principally aesthetic, applicable to their approaches to poetry alone. Certainly, reading Emerson’s “The Poet” and Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” together allows students to contemplate the characteristics of the American poetic tradition. Yet the subtler differences between the two writers emerge when one reads Poe’s tales after Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” but before his “Experience.” This approach shows the manifold problems implicit in self-reliance and the exertion of human will.

Emerson recognizes some of those difficulties in “Experience”; however, he never understood the major subjects of Poe’s fiction: the lure or the significance of the dark, often impishly perverse drives within human beings. Like Hawthorne and Melville, Poe implicitly suggests that Emerson’s confidence in the self-reliant, imaginative man is too simplistic, that Emerson does not explore the full implications of the exercise of the will in nineteenth-century American life. Poe presents characters who exercise no personal volition (Zenobia, Lacko’breath, Bedloe, M. Valdemar), as well as those who exercise too [page 95:] much (Templeton, Valdemar’s mesmerist, the narrator in “Ligeia”), but both types of characters reveal the same difficulty-they cannot see beyond the self. The stories present an implicit question, then: how can one see what is beyond the mind, beyond Emerson’s transparent eyeball (which becomes the “vacant eyelike windows” in “The Fall of the House of Usher”) or the leaden-hued pane of the narrator’s bridal chamber/mind in “Ligeia”?

Poe, of course, can offer no answers. In the satires, clearly, the volitionless protagonists can never reform because they cannot perceive their own inadequacies of understanding. Poe evinces clear contempt for these nonselves so well-wadded with stupidity, yet he refuses simplistically to blame their existence on the protagonists themselves, on God, or on society, although all, especially the last, seem culpable. At the other extreme, Poe’s monomaniacal characters can perceive only their obsessions, but Poe cannot wholly censure nineteenth-century American society for producing citizens like Montresor or Roderick Usher, for obviously not all Americans became Montresors or Ushers.

Despite his inability to provide either explanations or alternatives, Poe cannot ignore what I believe he considered the major problem of American democracy. That is: how can the individual will function productively and imaginatively within the limitations imposed by time, space, limited self-knowledge, and the need to tolerate the rights and the operation of the wills of others? These limitations must inevitably inhibit psychological growth in certain individuals, thus producing dead-in-life characters such as Allamistakeo, Oinos, Roderick and Madeline Usher.

Poe’s tales that employ what I call the “voice from beyond” are especially interesting to teach in the context of free will. Featuring the dead and dead-in-life, these tales suggest that Poe did not build stories around death only because he was fascinated with ghouls and graveyards, but rather because death provided a metaphor for man’s physical and psychological limitations. Moreover, everyone who kills in these stories is trying to deny his own mortal limits; he exerts his will most completely over another by taking another’s life. I will explain further when referring to individual tales.

Poe’s tales with “posthumous” characters also allow students opportunity to read less familiar works, which they will approach with no preconceptions. These tales can be divided into three groups: the satires; the mesmerism tales and other stories that demonstrate the under-use or self-defeating use of free will; and the conversations narrated from the afterlife. Taken as a whole, they develop two themes: Poe’s criticism of the diseased will in the dead-in-life, and his praise of the creative faculty in the “born again” — a higher form of will that [page 96:] makes possible the attainment of man’s supreme self in Aidenn (or Paradise).

Poe satirizes those incapable of exercising personal volition in “Loss of Breath,” “A Predicament” (and its companion piece, “How to Write a Blackwood Article”), “Some Words with a Mummy” and “The Premature Burial.” The protagonists of the first two tales have lost body parts crucial to human life — Zenobia, significantly, her head and Lacko’breath his breath; in the third tale, Allamistakeo has been embalmed for 5,050 years. The narrator of “The Premature Burial” has been interred alive within the illusions that his morbid imagination has contributed to his ill-being. He has escaped life and reality through dreams, visions, fantasies and periods of sleep and catalepsy followed by long intervals of forgetfulness. Poe’s point is that in terms of intellect, taste, common sense and personality, these characters are all dead-in-life — what T. S. Eliot would call “hollow men.”

Only one of these four protagonists “reforms,” thus illustrating Poe’s lack of hope for the Philistines and for all obsessed individuals. After having his greatest fear and supreme masochistic desire realized,(2) the narrator of “The Premature Burial” is purged of his morbidity and “Night Thoughts.” But he changes because he acts: he goes out into the sunshine and vows never again to read “bugaboo tales . . . such as this” (M3: 969). Poe’s other satiric characters are merely acted upon. Zenobia (unlike her serious counterpart in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” who escapes the blade through his wit) is decapitated by the hand of the clock and finds herself with no one and nothing — especially no motivation — at the end: “Dogless, niggerless, headless, what now remains for the unhappy Signora Psyche Zenobia? Alas — nothing! I have done” (M2: 357). Lacko’breath receives his breath again, but this restoration only allows him to speak more of the incomprehensibilities that make up his story as a whole. His marriage is apparently finished, and his functioning at all seems impossible: he has left his glass eyes, false hips, et cetera in his wife’s bedroom, and much of the rest of him has been dissected by physicians and eaten by cats. He cannot act because he has no body left. And Allamistakeo, after observing the shabbiest accomplishments of the nineteenth century (phony patent medicines and the Bowling Green fountain), experiences psychological defeat: “Never was triumph [over Allamistakeo] more consummate; never was defeat borne with so ill a grace” (M3: 1195). Allamistakeo is ready to return to a more comfortable state of being: mummification.

By such means Poe undercuts characters of no volition and consequently less integrity by making their “posthumous” existences a metaphor for death-in-life. Similar undercutting appears in “Shadow,” which commences: “Ye who read are still among the living; but I who [page 97:] write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows” (M2: 188). Dead now, the narrator was no more alive when writing the story. There is little difference between the “vague, and formless, and indefinite” (M2: 190) Shadow into which all of the characters dissolve at the end of “Shadow,” and the existence of these characters earlier in the tale. The narrator Oinos and his friends have locked themselves into a mausoleum-like room and become intoxicated while keeping vigil over the (presumably still infectious) corpse of their friend who has died of the plague. Ironically, Oinos’s name means “wine” and “one,”(3) and through “wine” the friends become “one” volitionless and mindless being. When “Shadow” enters at the end, he is an objective correlative of the friends’ physical and mental status. They are finally dead in all senses. This death does not lead to Paradise, as in Poe’s posthumous “conversation” tales such as “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” but to a limbo of stasis.

The same limbo recurs in “Silence — A Fable.” The man on the rock is isolated from nature, from other men and ultimately from himself. He is powerless; he is also surrounded by death: the voice that tells most of the tale is that of a demon (i.e., “the spirit of a dead man”), and the lynx who appears later in the tale is a scavenger.(4) According to Poe, there is no possibility of rebirth for the man on the rock because the only legitimate reason for relinquishing one’s will is to enter the afterlife and to become one with the Godhead.

Poe also records the over-exertion of the will that can create a perverse world into which his characters retreat. In both “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” and “Valdemar,” he implicitly condemns mesmerists who manipulate and ultimately control their patients’ lives. Although the narrator’s initial description in “Ragged Mountains” implies that Bedloe is a vampire and a reincarnation of the mesmerist Dr. Templeton’s long-dead friend Oldeb (His eyes resemble those of a “long-interred corpse” [M3: 940]), Templeton is ultimately the vampire whose supreme act of will over Bedloe is killing him with a poisonous leech.(5) Templeton proceeds from partial to complete mesmerizing, to killing Bedloe, thus gaining domination by extermination, as many of Poe’s other protagonists do.

“Ragged Mountains” and “Valdemar” illustrate that using the will to appropriate power over death has hideous results. M. Valdemar is kept in a mesmeric trance seven months after he should have died. When the mesmerist relinquishes control at the dead man’s anguished request, Valdemar’s body dissolves into liquid putrefaction because it has been decaying while he has been dead-in-life. Critics are often shocked by this ending, but what happens is, for the first time in the tale, something natural. Corpses do decay. Poe’s characters must [page 98:] observe this loathsome process only because the mesmerist has compelled the subject to exist past his time.(6)

“Ragged Mountains” and “Valdemar” contrast with “Mesmeric Revelation,” in which another character speaks, or seems to speak, from beyond the dead. Here, however, the mesmerist does not attempt to control his patient’s destiny, but only mesmerizes Vankirk to allow him to approach a deathlike state. Never manipulative, the mesmerist listens reverently as Vankirk enters the world beyond and peacefully reconciles and relinquishes his psyche and soul to God, death and the afterlife.

Vankirk is one of Poe’s few characters who willingly accepts death. Others, like Ligeia (who is most probably a projection of her “husband’s” enormous ego and will), believe that nothing can stop the will in its vigor; therefore they resist death. In contrast to Vankirk, the fisherman in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” refuses to relinquish his will and reason. He does not thwart death by clinging to the water cask; rather, he is spiritually unsuited to becoming “completely absorbed” (M2: 592; Poe’s italics) into the maelstrom, and thus into the Divine and the Eternal. As his account of being inside the maelstrom continues, the reader sees him gradually reenter the world of time and measurement. Significantly, he uses words from geometry and physics that define exact positions and measurements, and that thus divide instead of unify: “a plane parallel with that of the water” (p. 590), “angle of more than forty-five degrees” (p. 590) and “dead level” (p .591)? The fisherman’s “raving maniac” (p. 589) brother is absorbed, and enters the world out of space and out of time.(8) But the fisherman, who should have died (He seems to be “a very old man” [578; Poe’s italics] and “a traveller from the spirit-land” [p. 594], is returned to the mortal world. He is haunted and horrified by the experience of the sublime and ineffable that he could not fully embrace — but has not fully escaped. He now belongs neither on earth nor in Aidenn.

The next group of tales presents characters who have been transported to the “world beyond.” Unlike the fisherman, the characters in “Eiros and Charmion,” ready to enter the eternal realm, wished while on earth to relinquish their mortal bodies. As the earth exploded, mankind held their “arms rigidly outstretched towards the threatening heavens” (p. 461) — in supplicating despair but also in a wish to embrace what was to come. They were overcome by light, the same which constitutes the luminescence of the rainbow and is a sign of God’s presence in “A Descent.” The light “[penetrated] all things” (M2: 461), uniting them as one being and substance. This penetration and unification heralded the afterlife when all (according to Poe’s later works) would merge with God. Indeed, as Stephen Mooney notes, [page 99:] Eiros and Charmion seem to be two aspects of a single intelligence. They, and the universe, are one.(9)

The individual will seems to be lost in the afterlife, but this loss does not concern Poe’s characters in “Eiros and Charmion” or in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una.” In the latter, Monos describes in detail how his (and presumably Una’s) original body, senses and consciousness decomposed, a necessary transformation before Monos was “born again” in mind and in body. Monos laments the misuse of the will among mortals (of which he, too, seems to have been guilty) — instead of submitting to the guidance of natural laws, man had attempted to control them. Only the gruesome process of death and decay could resolve man’s “Cartesian dualism, the separation of the mind from physical reality.”(10) Monos and Una are now “redeemed regenerated, blissful, and . . . immortal” (M2: 612); their names both mean, significantly, “one.” But since “Monos and Una” begins as the principals are born again and traces the process of rebirth backward to the grave, how these “integrated” beings are to function is left unclear.(11)

In “The Power of Words,” however, Poe hints about regenerated man’s activities in Aidenn. He suggests that whenever man exerts his will in the heavenly spheres, he is actually following the will of the Godhead. One narrator in “The Power of Words,” Agathos, explains that on earth and in heaven, the source of all physical motion is thought, and the source of all thought is God. The mental and the material are intrinsically related, especially through words. Even on earth, man can, to an extent, participate in the divine as a writer, bringing art into being through words. In Aidenn, the creative process is carried further — creative regenerated beings can bring planets into existence by means of the Word.

In “The Power of Words” Poe thus establishes the force that unifies the here and the hereafter — the force never explained in “Monos and Una.” “The Power of Words” ends by making words the basis of the universe: they are “being” as opposed to “silence,” or nothingness. Words are mental activity made matter, thought made substance, word made flesh. Whereas many of Poe’s other “voices from beyond” demonstrate that death-in-life leads to death and an unsavory existence afterward, the voices in “The Power of Words” show that the rebirth following death can liberate creative faculties in the deserving reborn. Since creation is unity, however, the reborn person is no longer an individual in the human sense. He is rather, by becoming part of the Godhead, his supreme self, participating in what Coleridge calls “the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” [page 100:]

To conclude, it is clear why many of Poe’s posthumous voices are actually dead-in-(mortal)-life characters such as Lacko’breath, Zenobia, Allamistakeo, the narrators of “The Premature Burial” and “Shadow,” the man on the rock in “Silence,” the fisherman in “A Descent” and the mesmerized men and their mesmerists in “Ragged Mountains” and “Valdemar.” Poe’s obsession with death is also understandable: death initiates the process that allows man to escape space and time, the basic limitations upon human beings. Mortal existence almost compels man to be individualistic, bent upon exercising his will against the limitations forced upon him. Thus the imagination of the creative mortal, instead of asserting itself through the unrestricted creation that is made possible only through union with God, often acts perversely to gain power by means of the will. Because his imagination is restricted on earth, man often turns inward to the darkest recesses of his psyche to discover the imp of the perverse lurking there, urging the will to self-destructive actions. (Poe consistently demonstrates that every destructive act is ultimately self-destructive.) But when man becomes one with his universe, he asserts not his insecure self, but rather the infinite act of creation.

The closest man can come to the infinite act on earth is through words that create art and yet paradoxically prove mortal limitations. Poe never uses the macabre gratuitously, but always to convey this painful paradox. Perhaps one of my students was right: Poe thrived on frustration.(12) The imaginative man must inevitably be frustrated by limitations in the human sphere. Poe’s “posthumous” voices show that life on earth is death, and that death — although it must break down through decay all matter and spirit — allows the man of imagination to be born again. These voices also demonstrate that Poe can still be appreciated for his terrifying and cosmic themes. He will no longer terrify and inspire as a boogieman, however, but as an original thinker deeply aware of the philosophical and psychological dangers implicit in the American tradition as it was developing in his time and would continue to develop.

[page 100, continued:]


1.  Parkes, The American Experience (New York, 1947), esp. pp. 196-197. Parkes notes that Poe, Hawthorne and Melville “saw life in terms of a battle between the will of man and his environment” (p. 196). Barbour, “Poe and Tradition,” SLJ, 10(1978), 52. Barbour also notes that Poe’s greatest achievement lies in his fiction: “in his verse Poe is the Romantic anchorite indulging a grievance against an ugly world, but in his greatest tales — ‘Ligeia,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘William Wilson,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The [page 101:] Purloined Letter,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ perhaps one or two more — he grapples with the inner meaning of the American experience and provides a permanently valuable critique of our tradition. It is the purpose of this paper to show that Poe’s tales matter in a way the poetry can not, and to show further that their artistic strength is inseparable from the insight they show into the American experience, the effort to become truly human in America” (p. 49).

2.  See Bruce Ira Weiner, “Poe’s Subversion of Verisimilitude,” ATQ, 24(1974): “One wonders whether his [the narrator’s in “The Premature Burial”] retrospective complaint against his destiny accounts for burial or whether he had, at that time, doomed himself . . . by a kind of wish fulfillment. The man seems to want to be buried alive to get the ultimate masochistic thrill” (p. 3).

3.  The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Stuart and Susan Levine (Indianapolis, 1976), p. 145, n. 1.

4.  Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “The Power of Words in Poe’s ‘Silence’,” Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies, ed. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (Baltimore, 1978), pp. 56-72. Fisher views the tale as “a dramatized version of the bombardment and disintegration of a psyche” (p. 61). He sees the narrator, the man on the rock, the demon and the lynx as parts of one being: “A tortured human self, one who cannot elude his Demon, or his irrational, destructive side, a part of the self that exists close to the animal potential within all of us (witness the lynx) and just as close to death, implicit in the “shadow of the tomb” (p. 60). The protagonist “has become nothing; that is, he has been so lured from normal, everyday reality that he now exists in a mental-spiritual void, comparable to the desolation pictured by the demon” (p. 62).

5.  G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, 1973), pp. 147-152, elaborates upon the implications made by other critics that Templeton is Bedloe’s murderer.

6.  J. Gerald Kennedy, “Phantasms of Death in Poe’s Fiction” in The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1920, ed. Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow (Athens, Ga., 1983), pp. 37-65, notes that “the grotesque final scene betrays the limitation of human efficacy and reaffirms the sovereignty of death. In effect, the illusion of a scientifically insured immortality disintegrates with Valdemar” (p. 62). Amplification of such matters may be found in Kennedy’s Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing (New Haven, 1987).

7.  Poe’s use of mathematical language has been well-noted. An overview is Clarence R. Wylie, Jr., “Mathematical Allusions in Poe,” Scientific Monthly, 63(1946), 227-235. Recent work on mathematical language focuses on “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Alexander Hammond has spoken on “Subverting Interpretation: [page 102:] The Lesson of Poe’s Geometry in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’,” MLA Convention, New York, 29 Dec. 1983. Rochie Lawes, “The Dimensions of Terror: Mathematical Imagery in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’,” PoeS, 16(1983), 5-7, observes that “In the tale mathematical imagery is counterpointed against the dark uncertainties of what Kent Ljungquist calls ‘a crucible of painful sensations.’ The narrator’s facility with both the language and the concepts of mathematics allows him to grapple with the enormity of his danger” (p. 6).

8.  Richard Wilbur, “Introduction,” in Poe [The Laurel Poetry Series] (New York, 1959): “insanity . . . signifies . . . the ascendency of imagination over intellect, the power subjectively to distort or annihilate the world in favor of reverie or vision” (p. 16).

9.  Stephen L. Mooney, “Poe’s Gothic Waste Land,” SR, 70(1962), 272.

10.  Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. 133.

11.  Kennedy shares my perplexity about Poe’s vision of the afterlife. Noting that Poe is “no systematic thinker” about death and the hereafter, he discusses “Monos and Una” and other tales with posthumous speakers: “What seems significant about the cycle of spiritualized dialogues is Poe’s inclination to see body and soul as inextricably bonded. Despite the conception of an unearthly, astral form, an odd materialism informs Poe’s notion of the spirit world; ‘Aidenn’ is simply a place where things, substances, are less densely constituted. God is ‘unparticled matter,’ souls have bodies, and words have a ‘physical power.’ It is as if, for all of his mystical inclinations, Poe cannot escape an empirical vision of a bounded world. His depiction of an afterlife seems to express a yearning for a realm ‘out of space, out of time,’ beyond the contingencies of mortal existence. Yet in fact his spirit figures carry with them a good deal of earthly baggage — memories, affections, beliefs, political opinions — and spend much of their time (if one can thus speak of the eternal) reflecting upon personal experiences or explaining celestial phenomena according to mundane scientific principles. In short, Poe’s visionary texts (and here I include the monumentally confused Eureka) project a false transcendence, a phantasmic existence after death, conceptually embedded in a cosmos of matter and energy, a system that culminates in irreversible dissolution: entropy” (pp. 59-60).

12.  My thanks for this observation go to Edward Black, a student in English 41, Fall 1979, at Brown University.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Poe and the Will (April Selley, 1990)