Text: Steven E. Kagle, “The Corpse Within Us,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 103-112 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Ironically, the word “fantastic,” which means unreal, originates in the Greek phantastikos, “able to present to the mind,” for even in the empirical philosophy of John Locke, physical reality is only known when it is presented to the mind. The most fantastic elements in literature are often effective precisely because on some level they are the most real. Some of the most terrifying incidents in Poe’s works seem to draw their power from a “real” fear of premature burial, “real” not because the writer or his readers are in real danger of being buried alive, but rather, because the fear itself is real. In Poe’s stories this fear is especially real because it is tied to a companion fear as vital but not so obvious, the fear of being the agent of a premature burial. Stephen Crane noted that the man who fears he will “find a victim” is wiser than the man who fears he will “find an assassin” because the former realizes that he is not in control of his own actions. The man who fears he will commit a misdeed is announcing his inability to determine his own fate.

The fear of premature burial becomes magnified when the agent of the burial is also the tomb. How terrifying it is to realize that a secret from our past, one we had thought safely dead and buried, was still alive at the time of burial and that, even if it is no longer truly alive, it remains animate as a ghost or hallucination. The connection between the guilt from a buried secret and the theme of premature burial is extremely useful in understanding a number of Poe’s most famous works. Just as important is how his treatment of these matters suggests that his ideas were much closer to those of his contemporaries than has usually been recognized. In the very places where the “fantastic” qualities of Poe’s writings seem to separate him from his contemporaries, a “reality” links him to them.

This theme of buried guilt or secrets is frequently studied in the writings of Poe’s contemporaries, a large percentage of whom openly accepted the moral function of literary art that Poe so often claimed to be improper. In “Compensation,” Emerson warned that crime could not be hidden for it altered the natures of both the criminal and his environment: “Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox . . . . you cannot wipe out the foot track . . . so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires.”(1) Similarly, Bryant in “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood” cautioned that God had “yoked [page 104:] to guilt her pale tormentor, misery;” and, therefore, man could only escape suffering if he put off his guilt.

Melville was more explicit about the problem of the corpse within. In Mardi, Babbalanja’s demon, Azzageddi, warns that all men are “full of ghosts and spirits . . . are as graveyards full of buried dead that start to life before us. And all of our dead sires, verily, are in us . . . . From sire to son, we go on multiplying corpses in ourselves.”(2) In Moby-Dick, the barrels in the hold of the Pequod are filled with the distillation of corpses. Indeed, in the chapter entitled “The Try Works” the ship is described as “laden with fire, and burning a corpse,” features which make it seem “the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.(3) The Parsee’s prophecy offers another indication that the Pequod is a disguised hearse. Only when its coffin shoots out and is exposed to the world, is any escape possible. This internalization of guilt seems at least partially responsible for Ahab’s “monomania.” This “insanity” did not come when his leg was bitten off by the whale; rather, it “seized him” only afterward when he was bound in his hammock so that his ravings had no outlet and so were driven inward. Outwardly he seemed sane, but “Ahab, in his hidden self, raved on” (p. 160). It may be more than coincidence that, like the crack in the wall of Usher’s house, Ahab bears a mark that may run his whole length.

Rejecting this moral function in “The Poetic Principle,” Poe maintained that poetry is concerned with beauty and has little to do with either truth or the “moral sense.” This argument is sufficient to suggest that he might have been willing to apply his conclusions to prose fiction as well as to poetry. This extension is further supported by his pronouncements in the “Marginalia” that “Beauty” is the “sole object” of the imagination (Hl l: 156). Reviewing Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Poe pronounced Truth to be the “aim of the tale,” but even in this work Poe did not admit morality as a concern of prose fiction (Hl l: 109).

Many critics deny Poe’s concern with moral questions, claiming that he “does not touch morality” and that his tales of terror are not concerned with either sin, crime or moral law, but with “matters of psychology.”(4) Others argue that Poe’s tales do have a significant moral purpose, a purpose especially evident when one considers the implications of their use in advancing the theme of internal burial. This fear that one may become the agent of a premature burial or the guilt at having actually done such a deed is every bit as vital to an understanding of Poe’s work as is the fear of personal suffering. As the narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum” suggests, “moral horrors” may be at least as dreadful as “physical agonies.” We may shrink as much [page 107:] from the destruction of our souls as we do from threats to our bodies. Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience” warned that man’s duty to refuse to be the agent of injustice to another was more compelling than that to eradicate “even the most enormous wrong.”

One reason this situation is especially terrifying to many of Poe’s characters is that, as I have already suggested, in several instances the agent of the premature burial is, at least symbolically, also the tomb. A secret which had seemed dead and safely buried in the securest of hiding places proves, at least at the time of burial, to have been still alive and active within the character’s soul. How terrifying is the suspicion that, even if no longer truly alive, the secret is still animate as a spirit, hallucination or demon dwelling in the fittest place to take possession of the guilty party.

One story in which such a situation seems most obvious is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Madeline Usher is not buried in the family graveyard, where her body might become the prey of grave robbers, but in a crypt within the house, which as described, seems excessively secure: “A portion of the floor and the whole interior of a long archway . . . were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected” (H3: 288). The narrator, who seems less than satisfied with the place and manner Roderick Usher has chosen for his sister’s interment, considers it “at best a harmless . . . precaution,” and so puts aside his suspicions. However, the reader is less likely to be convinced about Usher’s motives (H3: 288). The very isolation of the house and its family burial ground seems a defense from the prying eyes of the outside world, as yet unaware of Madeline’s death. But some secrets are too dangerous to make the slightest risk of exposure acceptable.

Burial within the walls has its risks, however, for as the narrator reveals, Roderick and his house are doubles, “the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch,” and, therefore, the “House of Usher” had come to stand for “both the family and the family mansion” (H3: 275). As the sole surviving Usher, Roderick is the house; therefore, in burying his sister within his walls he is burying her within himself. Moreover, as twins, possessing not only “a striking similitude” but also supernatural “sympathies,” Roderick and his sister are doubles. In burying her, he attempts to bury a part of himself. In “The House of Poe,” Richard Wilbur, who is only one of many critics to examine Poe’s use of the enclosure theme, suggests that “circumscription, in Poe’s tales, means the exclusion from consciousness of the so called real world, the world of time, reason and physical fact.”(5) Few if any of Poe characters can be said to have managed a successful escape from external reality; how much poorer then are their chances of maintaining their isolation from [page 106:] reality when they attempt to circumscribe it, to carry it within themselves.

Roderick claims that he intends his sister’s interment within the crypt to be temporary, but this assertion, too, is suspect. If we were reading Hawthorne and not Poe, would we not expect to be immediately cautioned about the danger to the soul from burying guilty secrets with our hearts and deceiving ourselves with the belief that we will confess in time to be forgiven for our sin? Hawthorne’s “Bosom Serpent” gnaws at its victim most effectively from within. Even death offers no release or no sure protection against detection. In The Scarlet Letter, a man who kept some “hideous secret buried within him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime,” is betrayed by his own corpse which, decomposing, gives rise to “ugly weeds.”(6)

This principle that a buried secret brings suffering is often disguised in Poe’s stories because the stories are most frequently conveyed by a first-person narrator. As Emerson wrote in “Experience”: “That which we call sin in others is experiment for us . . . . The act looks very different on the inside and on the outside.(7) The murderers in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” deny that they are mad. He in “The Imp of the Perverse” blames his confession of an otherwise unpunishable crime on an external power. In all three stories a corpse, seemingly safely walled up within a house, is revealed to public view.

Montresor, the narrator in “The Cask of Amontillado,” also seems to have committed the perfect crime. He has walled his victim alive in the depths of the catacombs where he can never be found. But if the victim were safely sealed, why is this confession, for the story is a confession of the deed, recounted fifty years later when the narrator is so old that he must sense death close to him? Why does he still recollect that “his heart grew sick” or feel the need to rationalize this “sickness” as the result of the dampness of the catacombs? Why does he pray that the bones of his victim will rest in peace? He has asserted that “for half a century no mortal has disturbed them,” but is not his confession a sign that some immortal force has done so? Let us remember that the victim was not buried in some external graveyard, but in vaults located deep beneath and within Montresor’s own house. D. H. Lawrence even suggested that Montresor is guilty of an attempt to incorporate Fortunato’s soul within his own, that “in walling-up his enemy in the vault, Montresor seeks to . . . possess himself of the very being of the vanquished.”(8) If so, this incorporation is but another form of internal burial.

“Ligeia,” too, includes the theme of interior burial. When the narrator’s second wife, the Lady Rowena dies, she is not immediately entombed or even moved; instead, she is wrapped in a shroud and left in [page 107:] the room in which she died, a room which was also her bridal chamber. This room in one of Poe’s “castellated abbeys” has been decorated according to the narrator’s own morbid fantasies with items associated with tombs. In each of the angles of the room stood a “sarcophagus of black granite from the tombs of the kings over against Luxor.” Even the “bridal couch” carved of ebony had a “pall-like canopy” (H2: 259260). From this and a wealth of other details we can see that the narrator has already built a tomb within his house.

Ligeia, the narrator’s fast wife, has also died and been “entombed,” but the narrator makes no mention of where her tomb is. To find that we must first unravel mysteries about her identity. Tracing the origin of Ligeia from her first appearance as a siren in Milton’s “Comus” through her depiction as spirit of harmony in Poe’s own poem, “Al Aaraaf,” Richard Wilbur argues that she is “not a woman, but a mediating spirit embodying the Platonic idea of harmony” and that her function is to keep her husband’s “soul untouched by his diseased Earthly environment . . . [so that it might devote] itself to unbroken poetic visions of ultramundane harmony and beauty.” Wilbur suggests that Ligeia’s resurrection within the corpse of Rowena represents “a Platonic version of the art process in which beauty is imaginatively extricated from the temporal and physical.”(9) This interpretation does much to explain some of the narrator’s initial comments on Ligeia’s background and actions; however, it does nothing to explain why or how such a spirit has died, and Wilbur never discusses that death.

I suggest a modifying of Wilbur’s explanation that can provide a consistent explanation of Ligeia’s death. There is a particular type of “mediating spirit” who in mythology performs as Ligeia does, and this is a muse. If Ligeia is the narrator’s muse, a number of otherwise strange points in his account become clear. Like Ligeia, a muse has a lineage “of remotely ancient date” but no “paternal name.” Even today, we speak of an artist’s search for inspiration as “courting the muse.” Poe’s narrator is a scholar/artist who has become so devoted to his studies that he has in his mind married his muse. As a muse, Ligeia can come and depart “as a shadow” entering a closed study without any action that might be noticed by the physical senses. Indeed, the narrator explains that he “never” became “aware of her entrance” until she had touched, inspired, him. Her physical characteristics further delineate her nature. As a muse of the Romantic Period, she has a beauty which is marked by “strangeness” and irregularity rather than the “classical regularity” which was the standard of beauty in the Age of Reason. We can well understand why the narrator, who is associated with Romanticism, should have “met her first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine” (H2: 248). [page 108:]

Seen in this way, Ligeia’s death is the death of the muse, the loss of artistic inspiration and power. When Ligeia, using a phrase attributed to Glanvill, declared that “man does not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will,” she is warning her husband that the weak will which is bringing about her death is not hers but his (H2: 257). Her statement also indicates that the loss of creative power need not be permanent. She may die, but he will carry her corpse with him.

When the narrator marries the Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine, he takes a bride who is the antithesis of Ligeia. Rowena has not only a maiden name, but one that gives her a place in space and time. Ligeia was dark; Rowena is fair. Ligeia was spiritual; Rowena is physical. Ligeia can be loved only spiritually; Rowena can also be loved physically and may expect such love. Poe gives no other possible explanation for the narrator’s marriage to Rowena beyond physical attraction; Ligeia’s inspiration had already brought him wealth and some measure of fame. But if Rowena represents for the narrator the desires of sexual attraction, that sexuality also can be a source of anxiety. Thus the narrator comes to “loathe her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man” and “with what intensity of regret!” to remember “the entombed” Ligeia and to revel in “recollections of her purity” (H2: 260). His loathing is intensified by his awareness of the corpse within him and its constant reminder of his failed powers. Only when Rowena has died is her physical threat removed. Only after death can she be loved “purely.” The narrator’s emotion, the result of sorrow and guilt, is profound; and, in keeping with the Romantic tradition, heightened emotion results in a revival of poetic inspiration, the resurrection of Ligeia.

One might suppose that if the rebirth of Ligeia is a return of the narrator’s creativity, this appearance of what had been the corpse within is a very positive event and thus is much different from the reappearance of Madeline Usher. Certain subtle details, however, indicate that this is not the case. When, in the final paragraph, the narrator describes his attempt to reach toward the reviving body of Ligeia, he talks of her “shrinking from my touch.” And in the opening paragraph, as he begins to tell his story, he mentions that his “memory is feeble through much suffering” (H2: 248, 268). In other words, Ligeia’s return may have brought back his creative power, but it did not restore the joy that he had once felt in its operation. He may have regained his art but at an enormous price. Moreover, the corpse of his second wife who is Ligeia’s double, has never left his house. Whether, as some critics suggest, she died by his own hand, or whether he merely wished for her death, he knows that he is guilty of a crime. Like Fortunato, this narrator is attempting by telling his tale to re-invert his world, to [page 109:] expiate his guilt by externalizing the hidden corpse, but in each case the attempt is half-hearted; like Claudius’ prayers in Hamlet such actions cannot gain redemption for the sinner who is not fully repentant.

“The Masque of the Red Death” provides another telling example of Poe’s typical inversion of inner and outer reality. Prince Prospero believes that he is safe because he walled the plague outside the “castellated abbey” in which he takes refuge with a select group of his own courtiers. Soon, however, the Red Death appears within the abbey costumed as a corpse. The Prince — welding the bolts of his gates in an attempt to secure himself from what he perceived as the threat from outside the self — had, in actuality, locked the danger inside.

Like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Poe’s character is punished for a real transgression, dereliction of duty. Both monarchs try to escape their obligations to their subjects, and both try to deny their responsibility for their fate. Poe’s Prospero demands of the figure of the Red Death, “who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery?” How can he call the figure “blasphemous?” Who is “mocked?” The figure might be blasphemous if it were accusing God of being derelict in His obligation to His creations, to those who depended upon His care. If God were, indeed, responsible, Prospero could have absolved himself of guilt. Instead, by his own accusation, he is himself guilty of this blasphemy. Moreover, when Prospero chases the Red Death, he does so because the figure’s presence is an accusation against him. The figure has “blasphemed” against Prospero who, in assuming a god-like role, is guilty of the deadly sin of pride.

The theme of the corpse within is also apparent in Poe’s poetry, and a good example is “Ulalume.” At first glance, this poem seems to have little that relates to the theme of the corpse within; the dead lover is buried in an outdoor tomb which is clearly labeled and so precludes any sense of secret interment or the guilt that such an action symbolizes. But “Ulalume” is a poem with what appears to be a major contradiction.

Accompanied by his soul, the hero of the poem follows the “tremulous light” of a spectral moon in the belief that he can “trust to a gleaming / that cannot but guide us aright,” because its beams of hope and beauty are influenced by heaven (ll. 69-70). He finds that instead of offering an escape from his “treacherous” memories, the moon in a greater treachery has led him to Ulalume’s tomb. If it was the moon that tempted them toward the tomb, why in the final stanza do the hero and his soul agree that the moon was created “to bar up our way and to ban it / From the secret that lies in these words” (ll. 98-99)? One logical solution to this paradox is that the hidden secret is neither the tomb of Ulalume nor the body it contains. [page 110:]

Few critics have even tried to address this problem. Most seem content either to see it and the related problems of the poem as either further evidence of their beliefs that Poe is a poor poet (an excuse to consider the poem merely a semi-autobiographical contemplation of the poet), or as an opportunity to concern themselves solely with identifying details such as the origin of “Auber”and “Weir.” One of the few who do otherwise is James E. Miller, who correctly notes that words such as “the secret” and “the thing” are “hardly terms to describe a beloved.”(10)

Unfortunately, Miller’s contention that Ulalume is not a “dead wife or love” but rather “Death itself, a personification of a turbulent sexual impulse combined with its eventual destruction,” presents other problems as do a number of other assumptions essential to his argument (pp. 204-205). For example, if Ulalume is Death why is she called “thy lost Ulalume” (1. 81). Certainly she is not the narrator’s death nor is there any reason to describe Death, itself, as “lost.” If, as Miller claimed, the narrator’s kiss is an indication that Psyche has been transformed in the mind of the speaker from “insubstantial soul to a separate being capable of physical love” (pp. 203-204), why does the narrator call her “sweet sister” (1. 78)? Miller is correct when he suggests that the physical tomb is a reminder of physical death, but I disagree with his contention that the ghouls created the mystical moon in an attempt to advance this physical love and that, as it brings the speaker to the tomb, their moon “succeeded only in accomplishing the reverse of their purpose” (p. 205). The moon’s main functions are to attract the speaker and light his way to Ulalume’s tomb. By reminding the bereaved lover that Ulalume’s death is real and permanent, the “ghouls” have been merciful exactly as they intended.

The reality of death cuts off the speaker’s irrational hope of union with Ulalume, a necessary condition for the hero to go on with his life. In leading the hero and his soul to the tomb, the moon has led them away from the spiritually destructive romanticized dwelling on death and ties or demands which obligate lovers beyond death. Seen in this way, the poem presents a number of possible interpretations of “the secret that lies in these words.” It may be a secret declaration of fidelity beyond death or an as yet unrealized determination for reunion with his dead beloved through such means as suicide or (as occurs in a number of Poe’s tales) the re-animation of a corpse. Each of these possibilities represents a blasphemous challenge to what Poe would have recognized as traditional conceptions of God’s power and law, but all are in keeping with the principles of the reunification of scattered elements of the divine which Poe articulated in Eureka.

If Poe disagreed with traditional Christianity, he was equally at odds with the view expressed by the early Transcendentalists that “If the [page 111:] single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”(11) Unless one can truly transcend the physical, he has not been fully self-reliant. Death and limitation seem painful for those who assume the possibility of transcendence. Mourning must be done so that we can proceed with life. The tomb makes death real and external. It keeps the corpse outside and bans the corpse within.

In an important sense, the plot in “Ulalume” is the opposite of that in “The Raven.” In the latter the bereaved lover abandons his rationality, as is symbolized by the surmounting of the bust of Pallas, goddess of reason, by the symbol of magic and death. Even if believed to be prophetic, the raven’s single word “nevermore” is dependent for its meaning on the bereaved lover’s questions. A rational individual might have asked the raven if his unhappiness will continue; but, abandoning reason, the lover asks only those questions which will lead to despair. Instead of suggesting, as “The Raven” does, that a treacherous mind can make spiritual despair out of a physical object, “Ulalume” blocks the walk into the dark forest of unlimited despair with the physical tomb. Life ends, and burial, even burial alive, ultimately ends with death. The real danger is to bury within the living that suffering which will then be endured by the living.

Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” reminded his readers that although the living who remain suffer, the dead do not suffer; they are “fully at rest.” Poe uses his typical inversion of conventional attitudes to advance the same idea in “For Annie”: “living” is the fever and death is the release. Certainly, Poe, who had ample experience with both suffering and mourning, was acutely aware of the truth of this proposition. He knew that the attempt to keep alive the memory of a dead loved one was a source of pain, knew that it was more rational to bury the corpse publicly and get on with life. To suffer was to assume a burden of guilt, not necessarily guilt in the loved one’s death (although, as we have seen in “Ligeia,” the mourner may assume complicity), but the guilt that comes from the pleasure of suffering. Poe was well aware that one might take perverse, irrational satisfaction in such suffering.

In The Scarlet Letter Dimmesdale, Hawthorne’s sinful minister, declares his doubt that “a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, [would] prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once and let the universe take care of it” (p. 132). Yet, even as he makes this declaration , he himself is guilty of just such a mistake. Poe’s characters do not always try to deny the corpse within, but they almost always try to convince themselves that their past transgressions are safely dead; they pretend to go on with life. Poe’s stories are a warning against the irrationality of such an action; [page 112:] but, of course, they also are part of his argument that man is not completely rational.

[page 112, continued:]


1.  “Compensation,” Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson et al. (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 2: 67.

2.  Mardi, ed. Harrison Hayford et al. (Evanston, 1970), pp. 593-594.

3.  Moby-Dick, ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker (New York, 1967), p. 354.

4.  Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1961), p. 72.

5.  The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 261.

6.  The Scarlet Letter, ed. William Charvat et al. (Columbus, Oh., 1962), p. 131.

7.  Collected Works, 3: 45.

8.  Studies in Classic American Literature (1923; rpt. New York, 1961), p. 80.

9.  Major American Writers, ed. Perry Miller (New York, 1962), pp. 369-382.

10.  “‘Ulalume’ Resurrected,” PQ, 34(1955), 204.

11.  Emerson, Collected Works, 1: 69.





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