Text: Michael L. Burduck, “Usher’s Forgotten Church?,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2000


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Tennessee Technological University

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MANY READERS CONSIDER EDGAR ALLAN POE’S “The Fall of the House of Usher” to be one of the greatest short stories in all of world literature. Few would disagree, at least, that it is one of Poe’s most popular and justifiably famous works. Almost immediately, the reader of this tale is confronted by a number of characters who must certainly be considered quite peculiar. Madeline Usher, for example, can only be described as a woman of few words. Her brother, the cadaverous Roderick Usher, passes his time with wild improvisations on the guitar, which once prompted a student of mine to conclude that the head of the Usher family was Poe’s nineteenth-century version of Jimi Hendrix. The nameless narrator, surely one of the most naive (and one of the luckiest) figures in American fiction, does his best to help Roderick survive a mysterious malady, an unidentified condition which has elicited various explanations from scholars over the years. One attempt at soothing Usher’s “nervous agitation” deserves special notice. Poe’s speaker believes that reading to Roderick will help his friend regain some semblance of composure. But what sort of books do we find on Roderick’s shelves? Usher’s study abounds with treatises dealing with the occult, torture, and demonology — not exactly ideal material for relaxation.

Although the complete contents of the Usher family library are worthy of scholarly attention, one curious tome merits special consideration. This work, so we are told, served as Roderick’s “chief delight.” It is The Vigilae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae (Vigils for the Dead according to the Use of the Church of Mainz), a Roman Catholic book of prayers for the dead ­[page 2:] referred to by Usher’s friend as “the manual of a forgotten church” (M2:409). Here we are faced with what a casual reader might regard as a notable dismissal on Poe’s part of the Catholic Church as a mere curious artifact. As with so many aspects of Poe’s writings, however, the obvious is not necessarily the truth. Indeed, a careful evaluation of Poe’s literary legacy suggests that Poe possessed a good working knowledge of — perhaps even a sympathy for — a number of the Church’s basic teachings.(1) As we shall see, far from being a “forgotten church,” Roman Catholicism played an active, indeed prominent role in nineteenth-century American society. More to our point, it appears that the Church of Rome did not escape the attention or interest of Edgar Allan Poe.

To date, no scholar seems to have examined in depth Poe’s familiarity with Roman Catholicism. In a rather uneven, yet interesting study published in 1928, William Mentzel Forrest verges on the brink of firmly linking Poe to Catholic tradition, but regrettably does not follow up on some of his most intriguing assertions. In Biblical Allusions in Poe, he remarks that many of Poe’s characters “are good Roman Catholics.” Forrest goes on to say, “since he was a romanticist the phases of formal religion that attracted Poe most naturally were Catholic.”(2) Unfortunately, Forrest does not elaborate on these intriguing points. Later in this discussion, I will refer to some of the facts pointed out by Forrest. For the moment, I will state only that Forrest failed to see the significance of some of his own remarks.

More recent commentators have made a few cursory studies of Poe and Roman Catholicism, usually focusing on the Catholic-Masonic feud. Marvin Felheim, Donald Pearce, Kathryn Montgomery Harris, James E. Rocks, Kent Bales, and Charles A. Sweet have all addressed the Catholic elements in “The Cask of Amontillado.”(3) Felheim speculates that the Catholic Montressor despises Fortunato in part because the soon to be entombed man is a Mason. Pearce, Harris, and Rocks suggest a similar notion. Bales theorizes that Poe used the Fortunato-Montressor rivalry in order to take advantage of the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic attitudes present in American society during the Know-Nothing period of the 1840s, while Sweet notes the guilt present in the devout Catholic Montressor. One of the mainstays of Poe criticism, ­[page 3:] Richard P. Benton, also makes some passing comments about Poe’s use of Catholicism in this tale.(4) Discussing references to the Roman Catholic requiem mass, Benton posits that Poe probably consulted the Catholic Missal published in Rome in 1714, the Dublin edition of 1833, or most likely the Baltimore edition published in 1835. In addition, Benton believes that Poe, living in Fordham when he wrote the tale, frequently used the library at the nearby Jesuit college of St. John’s (later Fordham University). Neither of Poe’s latest biographers addresses at all the issue of Poe’s possible familiarity with Catholicism. In fact, Kenneth Silverman feels that Poe “was at best indifferent to traditional Christianity,” while Jeffrey Meyers asserts that Poe “wrote . . . as if Christianity had never been invented.”(5)

Perhaps many among Poe’s modern audience have heeded the words of that doyen of Poe studies, Thomas Ollive Mabbott. In his remarkable footnotes to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Mabbott comments on the book to which I alluded earlier, the Vigils for the Dead, and posits that Poe “knew little of the Roman Catholic Church.”(6) Many readers, no doubt, believe Poe a confirmed atheist, with no ties to God or spirituality. By extension, with the exception of the Catholic-Masonic clashes, readers for the most part have not specifically examined Poe’s potential knowledge of Catholicism. In fact, very few scholars have addressed Poe’s interest in religion. We know from documented facts that during his adult life Poe attended church services no more than a handful of times. There is no evidence that he ever participated in a Catholic mass. As I hope to demonstrate, however, the Catholic Church’s high level of visibility during his lifetime, some of the Catholic writers and publishers with whom he associated and from whom he sought advice, and various elements present in his works might very well lead us to conclude that Poe was not only familiar with but perhaps sympathetic toward some of the Church of Rome’s basic teachings.

Prior to discussing some of Poe’s “contacts” with Roman Catholicism, we will first spend some time commenting on — for want of a better phrase — the social prominence of the Church during Poe’s lifetime. The nineteenth century saw Catholicism in America experience a profound movement toward centralization and uniformity. Baltimore, a city with strong Poe associations, served as ­[page 4:] the hub of American Catholicism, becoming the first diocese in the United States and, in 1808, the first American archdiocese. In order to ensure that the American Church adhered closely to the doctrines of Rome, a series of Provincial Councils was instituted. Eleven meetings took place in Baltimore between 1791 and 1884, with seven significant provincial councils occurring during Poe’s adulthood. All of the gatherings received a great deal of press coverage and helped focus the entire nation on the American branch of the Church of Rome. References to at least some of the pronouncements made by these councils, one may reasonably assume, were read and remembered by Edgar Poe.

A detailed history of the Catholic Church in nineteenth-century America rests beyond the scope of the present study.(7) We should, however, consider a few of the decrees resulting from some of these councils, decrees that might have an impact on how readers perceive some of Poe’s works. For example, from October 3-18 of 1829 (a time when young Edgar Poe lived in Baltimore), the First Provincial Council ruled that the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible would serve as the only officially-sanctioned Bible for American Catholics. During the Second Provincial Council, October 20-24 of 1833 (Poe was still residing in Baltimore), the Church, deciding that the liturgy should appeal to all the senses, codified the music, singing, candles, vestments, and incense used during the Mass. (This synesthesia — appealing to all the senses simultaneously — and its inherent beauty surely would have appealed to the artistic sensibilities of Poe.) Finally, virtually all of the Church councils stressed the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The American Church’s leaders promoted the significance of Mary’s role in salvation years before Rome officially decreed her status as “conceived without sin.” As we shall see later in this discussion, the Church’s views on the purity, beauty, and pivotal role of the Virgin Mary asserted by the Provincial Councils of Baltimore might very well have influenced Poe when he sat down to write some of his most interesting works.

The Church’s prominence in American society also led to a great deal of anti-Catholic activity during the 1830s and 1840s. Unity and strength, however, emerged from persecution and intolerance as the Church became one of the most stable institutions ­[page 5:] in America. Far from being a “forgotten church,” the Roman Catholic Church in nineteenth-century America played a pivotal role in the creation of a unique American culture, a role of which Poe could hardly have been unaware. Since his choice of phrase clearly does not appear appropriate when referring to American Catholicism of the time, how should we interpret it? Apparently, Poe’s somewhat ironic choice of words might reveal his belief that the Church of Rome was anything but “forgotten” during those years when he was emerging as one of America’s premier writers.

We should now focus our attention on Edgar Allan Poe and his familiarity with some of Catholicism’s basic tenets and with some of the more famous literary men of the period with both Catholic and Poe connections. Although I will be examining poems, tales, and critical pieces which were written before Poe first became acquainted with some of the specific Catholics on whom I will comment, his familiarity with these men nevertheless demonstrates that his contacts with Catholicism continued throughout his career.

As a fledgling writer, struggling to have his work accepted by the leading magazines of the day, Poe solicited the advice of various literary luminaries. Among those he contacted was Robert Walsh, one of Philadelphia’s most ardent and esteemed Catholics. Walsh had received his education at Georgetown and Baltimore’s St. Mary’s College.(8) In 1811, he established the nation’s first standard quarterly journal, the American Review of History and Politics. In 1820, he helped found the National Gazette and Literary Messenger. He also edited the famous American Quarterly Review from 1827 to 1837. When Poe met William Wirt, asking for advice on “Al Aaraaf,” the Attorney General and writer encouraged him to get an introduction to Robert Walsh. Eager to see his works appear in print, Poe heeded Wirt’s suggestion. If we can trust Poe’s letter of May 29, 1829 to his foster-father John Allan (and there seems no cause to doubt it), sometime after May 12 Poe wrote Walsh and received a reply in which Walsh reminds Poe of “the difficulty of getting a poem published in this country.” While working for Thomas Willis White’s Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Poe published a favorable notice of Walsh’s work Didactics — Social, Literary, and Political in May of 1836. In the July 1836 Messenger, Poe mentions that various writers, including Walsh, have promised ­[page 6:] to contribute to the journal and have lauded its “editorial course.” Poe, always attentive to praise and criticism, clearly seems grateful to have merited Walsh’s remarks. Poe’s letter to Isaac Lea, written sometime before May 27, 1829, suggests that Poe actually met Walsh.(9)

The City of Brotherly Love served as home to another leading Catholic, Mathew Carey.(10) The most prominent publisher in the early to mid-nineteenth century, Carey also edited the Pennsylvania Herald, the Columbian Magazine, and the American Museum, the last of which was the most influential news magazine in the United States. Perhaps one of the most famous and widely publicized works published by Carey was what many readers called the “Carey Bible,” the first American edition of the Douay-Rheims version. This edition of the Bible (to which I alluded earlier, and to which I will allude again later) served as the “official Catholic version” of the Holy Scriptures. When Carey retired in 1822, his son, Henry C. Carey, and son-in-law, Isaac Lea, continued the firm as Carey and Lea, publishing the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and John P. Kennedy (another friend of Poe). Between 1827 and 1833, Carey and Lea published Robert Walsh’s journal the American Quarterly Review. Most notably, for our purposes, when Henry C. Carey retired in 1838 and William Blanchard became Isaac Lea’s partner, the firm of Lea and Blanchard would publish Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in December of 1839.

An item in the Maryland Historical Society sheds some light on this association. As parts of the handwriting are indecipherable, uncertain words are enclosed within “< >”. This item, a note from Henry C. Carey to J. P. Kennedy, reads, “Dear Sir, I am glad to <hear it is> my <pleasure> to hand you a small sum for your friend <in p . . .ouse>of one of his tales — I will keep the subject in mind & will do the best I can for him — I am yours very truly, H. C. Carey, Phil. Dec 8, 1834.” Kennedy adds his own note: “Letter from Henry C. Carey sending me $20 for Edgar A. Poe, paid by Miss Leslie for the tale of Poe’s sent by me to H. C. C. to give Poe a little money. Carey gave it to his sister in law Miss Leslie — who is a sister of the painter — and who edited at this time the Atlantic Souvenir in which the tale appeared. I think it was ‘The M.S. found in a bottle’ — it was, however, Edgar Poe’s first venture on the Literary Market. J. P. Kennedy, April 12, 1851. P. S. I find from ­[page 7:] a letter of Carey’s that this tale having been published before Miss Leslie selected another from several that I sent her.” On the reverse, Kennedy wrote: “Dec. 8, 1834 Note from Henry C. Carey of Philad. — to me enclosing a debt of 20 <corrected from fifty> dollars for Poe.” Although Kennedy seems mistaken about The Atlantic Souvenir, as Miss Leslie published the tale in her annual The Gift for 1836 (1835), these comments help to demonstrate the Carey family’s interest in Poe.(11)

Mathew Carey did not allow retirement to prevent him from contributing to literary journals. In May of 1836, Thomas Willis White wrote to Carey asking his aid to increase the Southern Literary Messenger’s circulation. Carey seems to have responded favorably as three of his pieces, “National Ingratitude,” “The Science of Life,” and “Anthologia,” appeared in the July 1836 Messenger. On July 30, 1836, Poe wrote to Carey regarding another proposed contribution, an article titled “The Learned Languages” for the August 1836 Messenger. This letter suggests that Carey had written Poe sometime prior to July 30, 1836. The October 1836 issue features newspaper notices of White’s magazine. Referring to the August 1836 Messenger, the Washington National Intelligencer praises White’s periodical for attracting “a great number of the proudest literary men in our country,” including that of “the venerable Mathew Carey of Philadelphia.”(12)

A third renowned litterateur with whom Poe was acquainted was Joseph Ripley Chandler, who edited the Philadelphia-based daily newspaper the United States Literary Gazette.(13) One of Philadelphia’s widely acknowledged Catholic leaders, Chandler met Poe at an 1839 supper party held at playwright William Penn Smith’s home. At the dinner, William Evans Burton (for whom Poe worked as assistant editor of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine) introduced Poe to Chandler. That Chandler admired Poe and his work becomes evident if we look at some of the reviews and notices Chandler published in the United States Gazette. In his September 4, 1839 issue, for example, Chandler compliments Poe’s editorial skills: “Mr. Poe praises when he thinks commendations are due and censures whenever and wherever he thinks censure deserved. . . .” He also speaks fondly of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” calling the work “a very interesting . . . well told tale.” Chandler goes on to ­[page 8:] say that “Mr. Poe is, in our opinion, not only a good writer, but a good, though (if we ought not rather say because) a severe judge. . . .” Commenting on the publication of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Chandler in the December 5, 1839 Gazette expresses his belief that Poe “is capable of much — and we trust that time and opportunity will be allowed, and ample encouragement afforded him.”(14)

In the June 11, 1840 Gazette, Chandler speaks warmly of Poe’s prospectus for the Penn Magazine, and on July 21, 1843, the Gazette praises the thin volume of Poe’s Prose Romances, published by William H. Graham earlier in June. The Gazette for both January 8 and 9 of 1844 strongly encourages the people of Philadelphia to attend Poe’s repeat reading of his lecture on “The Poets and Poetry of America,” this time to be held at the Philadelphia Museum. Chandler states: “Mr. Poe is himself a poet, an acute critic, and a vigorous prose writer. It is well occasionally to hear such an one upon his own craft, and his fellow craftsmen.”(15)

Another of Poe’s Catholic connections merits our attention. Although neither a writer nor a publisher, Father Edward Doucet, a faculty member (and later president) at St. John’s College in Fordham, became a close friend while the poet lived in what is now The Bronx. Indeed, Poe seems to have admired his Jesuit neighbors. In an oft-quoted letter of John H. Hopkins to Marie Louise Shew, Hopkins credits Poe with the following opinion of the Catholic priests residing next door: “They were highly cultivated gentlemen and scholars . . . and smoked, drank, and played cards like gentlemen, and never said a word about religion.”(16) We should pause here and examine these words. Assuming that they accurately reflect what Poe may have said, he apparently was pleased with the scholarly abilities and down-to-earth behavior of these Jesuits. The expression that they “never said a word about religion,” is subject to interpretation. What he probably meant was that they never proselytized. In other words, at no point in his presence did they conduct themselves like missionaries striking out to convert a misguided heathen.

As mentioned earlier in this discussion, we know that Poe made frequent visits to the college campus, no doubt using the library. I have also already alluded to the close friendship Poe had with Father Doucet, a scholar and an accomplished musician. (One ­[page 9:] must here note that Poe was, by his own admission, keenly interested in esoteric information and in music.) It seems unlikely that, during the years Poe resided at Fordham and mingled with the priests, he never once discussed some aspects of the Catholic faith. Given the notoriety of the Church at the time, I find it difficult to believe that Poe would not have inquired about some of the Church’s basic dogma. If only out of a sense of scholarly curiosity, Poe might have wondered about Catholicism’s beliefs and rituals. These men had decided to take vows to express their intense love of their church, an overt expression of their spiritual lives that conspicuously set them apart from laymen. Like Poe’s Tamerlane, who gave up worldly love for ambition, they had given up worldly love for faith. Should we imagine a man like Poe sitting by and never speaking with his neighbors about such matters? The most reasonable conclusion is that Poe almost certainly did learn something about Catholicism from his Jesuit neighbors and from the various “high profile” events that took place in the Church both during the years prior to his moving to Fordham and the time after he settled there.

One more of Poe’s prominent literary friends during the 1840s also might have called Poe’s attention to the Catholic Church. Although not a Catholic himself (and essentially a critic of all organized religions), George Lippard frequently defended Catholicism from the virulent anti-Catholic sentiments expressed by various Protestant leaders in the mid-nineteenth-century. Scholars such as Emilio De Grazia, Burton Pollin, and David S. Reynolds have discussed the friendship between Lippard and Poe.(17) De Grazia refers to Lippard as one of Poe’s “most devoted acquaintances,” and also posits that “the two maintained a close personal friendship.” Pollin alludes to Lippard’s enthusiastic endorsement of Poe’s “Lecture on American Poetry,” and suggests that the two men knew each other quite well. Reynolds states that “a loyal friendship developed between the two writers” dating back to when Lippard worked across the street from Poe in Philadelphia. Lippard frequently praised Poe’s creative efforts. Poe reciprocated in 1843 by writing a letter in which he made kind remarks about Lippard’s first romance The Ladye Annabel.(18) In the middle of 1849, the destitute Poe visited Lippard’s office and received help from the writer and his friends John Sartain and Chauncey Burr. Even if we discard all other possible ­[page 10:] influences, it seems likely that Poe would have been familiar with what Lippard had to say concerning the Catholic Church.

Lippard directs his most trenchant satire at the members of the anti-Catholic movement. Granted, Lippard had little use for any traditional religion. He distrusted, for example, such Catholic fanatics as John Joseph Hughes, who responded to their Protestant Know-Nothing accusers with similar fanaticism. A brief examination of some of Lippard’s writings, however, reveals a distinct sympathy for the Church. Reynolds points out that Lippard spoke out against the persecution of Catholics and that he frequently praised Catholicism’s aesthetic rituals and the bravery of Catholics who fought during the American Revolution.(19)

In the November 15, 1843 issue of The Citizen Soldier, Lippard notes that he anxiously awaits Poe’s “Lecture on American Poetry” to be delivered at the William Wirt Institute in Philadelphia. In addition to calling Poe “the most original writer that ever existed in America” (R258), he also refers to the Wirt Institute lecture delivered by Professor Cleveland on the topic of English literature. Lippard does not speak favorably of Cleveland’s talk. He seems particularly disturbed by Cleveland’s use of the phrases “Our glorious reformation,” “Catholic darkness” and “Popish ignorance” (R257). The following year Lippard published his most famous book, The Quaker City, a treatise on the moral hypocrisy of Philadelphia’s upper class. He reserves his fiercest criticism for the Reverend F. A. T. Pyne, a fictional Calvinist ideologue who relishes the thought of the destruction of the Catholic Church. In the third chapter of Book III, Pyne launches into one of his many diatribes against the Church of Rome: “Thus let Pagan Rome be met at the threshold! Awake Guy Faux . . . awake Inquisition with your tortures, with your fiery furnace, into whose flames you cast . . . good Protestants. . . . Down with the Pope and his Bulls! Down with St. Peter’s and the Vatican! Down with the Priests, and the Monks and the Nuns, down with them all! Up with the Patent-Gospellers, up with the good old doctrine which John Calvin preached. . . .”(20) Pyne later offers to lead a group of Protestant reformers on a pilgrimage to Rome to convert the Pope. Pyne claims previous Protestant missionaries had been ground up into sausages by the evil residents of Vatican City. As the ­[page 11:] novel progresses, however, readers learn that Pyne’s hypocrisy far outshines his devotion to God. He enjoys sneaking into Monk Hall to partake of women, alcohol, and opium. He even attempts to seduce his own daughter. Lippard’s strong opposition to anti-Catholic feelings emerges clearly in this novel.

A few additional references make Lippard’s disgust with anti-Catholic thought evident. In “Jesus and the Poor,” an article published in 1848 in The 19th Century: A Quarterly Miscellany, Lippard derisively mentions the Catholic-haters who discourse on “The Pope, and how to put him down” (R79). He also ridicules the “Rev. Dr. Blowhard,” who is to “deliver an Essay on ‘The Cause of the Missions’; with suggestions in favor of the appropriation of $100,000 for the Conversion of the present Anti-Christ, the Pope of Rome “ (R79). Elsewhere in the same essay Lippard criticizes the Societies devoted to “the Putting Down of a Romish Pope,” and praises the memory of a popular Catholic “[the] stout-souled Man, one Mathew Carey . . .” (R57). Responding to Orestes Brownson (who had recently converted to Catholicism and who, along with his former fellow Transcendentalists, was regularly lampooned by Poe) and his opinion that preachers must be excluded from a school for orphans, Lippard denounces Brownson in the April 21, 1849 Quaker City Weekly: “we can only regret for the sake of the learned and pious priest of the Roman belief, that a spirit so thoroughly full of hatred as his own ever found admission into the Catholic Church. He will do more injury to the Catholics in one year than all the no-popery preachers in the world could accomplish in a century. He is not a Catholic; he is only the galvanic reaction of an old-time Puritan: nothing more” (R187).

Writing in the July 21, 1849 issue of the Quaker City Weekly, Lippard laments that in most American religious leaders “can be clearly traced the feature of great Propaganda at Rome” (R175). Finally, in his 1849 novel The Empire City, Lippard chides the typical Protestant minister who “goes straight to the high pulpit, and bitterly confounds the Pope of Rome” (R176). Indeed, Lippard’s many expressions of sympathy for American Catholics might in part have affected Poe’s own attitudes toward Catholicism.

At this point we should shift our attention to elements — some minor, others more significant — in a few of Poe’s works which suggest a personal interest in Roman Catholicism. Aside from Poe’s cultural ­[page 12:] and social contacts with Catholicism, what do his artistic creations reveal about his familiarity with or affinity for the Church of Rome? It should be noted that direct use of religion is rare in Poe’s works, giving extra importance to even minor references.

Among these subtle clues is the book to which I alluded earlier, The Vigils for the Dead, along with some of the other titles present in Roderick Usher’s library. Poe’s much vaunted fondness for Latin and his reading of classical texts might very well have introduced him to religious writers of the period when the only, or certainly the dominant, “Christian” church in existence was the Catholic Church. One may speculate that while examining this tradition, an inquisitive reader such as Poe might also have investigated the rituals and beliefs that formed an integral part of that church’s history. More specific hints appear in Poe’s tales, poems, and criticism. A close examination of Poe’s canon reveals numerous references suggesting an awareness of various items considered central to Catholic belief. For example, Poe comments on the saints, the Vatican, certain popes, and the sacrament of confession. His mention of these and other aspects of Catholicism serves to demonstrate an interest in the Catholic Church.

In the short story Poe originally titled “Epimanes” but eventually re-christened “Four Beasts in One,” the opening paragraph makes reference to the Syrian monarch Cambyses. Among the nefarious deeds attributed to him stands “his pollution of the Holy of Holies” (M2:120), a reference to the inner sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. While many modern readers have heard the phrase “the Holy of Holies” (and might have used it in various fashions), we should pause and place the words in their 1830s American context. Most people familiar with Scripture might assume that these words appear in the King James version of the Bible, the standard biblical text for many of the nation’s Protestants for most of the nineteenth century. In fact, as Forrest points out, the phrase “the Holy of Holies” is found only in the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. This is the same version which the First Provincial Council of Baltimore decreed in 1829 would serve as the sole authorized Catholic Bible. Poe’s use of a phrase found only in this Catholic version of the Holy Writ suggests a familiarity with this most important of Catholic publications. William Mentzel Forrest ­[page 13:] believes that Poe’s debt to this Bible can also be demonstrated by his frequent use of Latinate words. Forrest asserts that the English language received many such words through the Douay-Rheims, or should we say, the “Carey” Bible.(21)

Outside of the apostles, Protestant churches generally do not recognize saints as such. Catholics, however, venerate a vast array of saints, and Poe refers to some of these figures in his works. In his “Pinakidia,” Poe mentions St. Bruno and St. Catherine. He writes: “Under a fine painting of St. Bruno in solitude, some Italian wrote these words, ‘Egli e vivo, e parlarebbe se non osservasse la regola del silenzio.’ [‘He is alive and would speak if he did not observe the rule of silence.’] Malherbe has taken the hint in his epigram upon the picture of Saint Catherine” (P72). St. Bruno founded the Carthusian Order, a religious group requiring that its members remain silent. He is also the patron saint of possessed individuals. The reference here seems appropriate when we consider that so many of Poe’s characters — such as those in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Berenice,” and “The Gold-Bug” — are consumed by obsession. The narrator of “The Black Cat” is even unable to control his actions in spite of the fact that he knows them to be wrong, clearly a sort of possession in a demonic sense. Demonic possession is also suggested in Poe’s early story “Metzengerstein,” where the young nobleman mounts the demon horse with “an unaccountable and almost imperceptible shudder” and returns from his rides with “an expression of triumphant malignity [which] distorted every muscle in his countenance.” (M28)

In Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” the artist at the center of the tale appears “possessed” by his work to the point where he is unable to love his wife as anything more than a means of feeding his artistic desire to create a “living art.” Also of interest is the fact that the first version of this tale (originally titled “Life in Death”) featured a motto referring to St. Bruno. We should also be aware that St. Catherine is the Catholic Church’s patron saint of art and artists. Also in “Pinakidia” appears a reference to St. Patrick: “Archbishop Usher, in a MS. of St. Patrick’s life, said to have been found at Louvain as an original of a very remote date, detected several entire passages purloined from his own writings” (P48). Another “Pinakidia” item comments on a play dealing with the life of St. ­[page 14:] Denis: “In this serious drama, St. Denis, having been tortured and at length decapitated, rises very quietly, takes his head under his arm and walks off the stage in all the dignity of martyrdom” (P48).

In his “Marginalia,” Poe makes one allusion to St. Francis of Assisi: “We, of the nineteenth century, need some worker of miracles for our regeneration; but so degraded have we become that the one prophet, or preacher, who could render us much service, would be the St. Francis who converted the beasts” (P377). While no doubt expressing his dissatisfaction with the condition of nineteenth-century society, Poe also seems to reveal some respect, perhaps even a slight veneration, toward the humble and loving Catholic saint. (Also interesting is the fact that Poe is clearly aware of two saints named Francis. St. Francis of Assisi is famous enough to be known casually to most Protestants, but Poe evidently has pursued the subject further.)

Finally, Poe’s “The Coliseum” certainly has connotations of pre-Protestant Christian martyrs, individuals who would be viewed by the Catholic Church as “un-named saints.” The poem’s opening line and its reference to the “Rich reliquary” (M1:228) reveals the depths of the speaker’s feelings as he visits this holy place. Referring to “so many days / of weary pilgrimage [a holy quest] and burning thirst . . . I kneel, [a respectful gesture of any good Catholic] an altered and a humble man . . .” (M1:228), the speaker appears comforted and honored to be in a place where so many nameless Christians parted with their lives rather than part with their faith. Speaking with apparent reverence, he remarks: “Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!” (M1:228) Although the “hero” might well be one of the many Roman gladiators who fought and died there, Poe often mixes multiple meanings into the poems. Indeed, the reference to Gethsemane in the poem’s second stanza, as well as the mention of the robe in the last line (perhaps intended to evoke the image of Christ, the most famous man ever killed by the Romans), suggest a Christian context. Moreover, the poem’s noble tone and the speaker’s reflective words seem less appropriate to honoring gladiators, heroes of violence, than heroes of a more glorious cause, namely the early Christians who stood so bravely by their beliefs to the end and sacrificed themselves there for God. In this poem, as well as in the works cited earlier, Poe seems to rely on Catholic notions concerning saints and sainthood. ­[page 15:]

Other examples from Poe’s critical commentary demonstrate a general awareness of Catholicism. In various instances, Poe alludes to the Vatican and to the popes. For example, in “Supplementary Marginalia” Poe comments on how “a far, very far higher reach of erudition is within the grasp of any general reader having access to the great libraries of Paris or the Vatican” (P520). In “Pinakidia,” he informs his readers that “In the Vatican is an ancient picture of Adam, with the Latin inscription ‘Adam divinitus edoctus, primus scientiarum et literarum inventor.’” [The translation provided by Burton Pollin is “Adam, divinely instructed, was the first to devise the sciences and letters.”] (P40). Poe’s familiarity with stories dealing with Catholic popes emerges in “Pinakidia”: “ ‘semper sub Sextis perdita Roma fuit,’ [‘Always under the sixth ones did Rome find itself lost.’] was a line written during the pontificate of Alexander VI. Sextus Tarquinius provoked by his tyranny the expulsion of the kings of Rome. Urban VI began the great schism of the West. Alexander VI astonished the world by the enormity of his crimes, and Pius VI did not falsify the saying” (P83). Here Poe is alluding to some of the most notoriously corrupt popes, Alexander VI and Urban VI. He also ranks Pius VI as a member of this group, perhaps unfairly. Later in “Pinakidia” he again mentions Pius VI: “At the bottom of an obelisk which Pius VI was erecting at great expense near the entrance of the Quirinial Palace in 1783, while the people were suffering for bread, were found written these words. . . . Lord, command that these stones be made bread” (P91). Although Pius VI established the Vatican Museum, sought to restore grandeur to the Church, and had the misfortune to be pope during the turmoil of the French Revolution, Poe’s reference suggests that this pontiff could have demonstrated more sympathy for the poor.

Further evidence for Poe’s interest in the Papacy may be found in “Metzengerstein” and in some of his critical pronouncements. The tale’s speaker discusses “rich-ermined priests, and pontific dignitaries,” and later mentions “the fiat of papal supremacy . . .” (M2:25). We should also note that in this tale, set in Catholic Hungary, the narrator suggests that the young Baron’s ancestors were themselves the aforementioned priests and papal dignitaries, in all likelihood a great source of pride for that Catholic family. ­[page 16:]

In one of his “Editorial Miscellanies” from The Broadway Journal, Poe writes: “The London Builder, speaking of extraordinary mosaics, mentions an exquisite specimen — a portrait of Pope Paul V, in which the face alone consists of more than a million and a half fragments, each no larger than a millet seed . . .” (T1080). Poe’s review, appearing in the March 1844 Graham’s, remarks of R. H. Horne’s Orion: an Epic Poem in Three Parts: “We have been among the earliest readers of Mr. Horne — among the most earnest admirers of his high genius. . . . With an eager wish to do justice to his ‘Gregory the Seventh,’ we have never yet found exactly the opportunity we desired. . . . We have already said that ‘Gregory the Seventh’ was, unhappily, infected with the customary cant of the day — the cant of the muddle pates who dishonor a profound and ennobling philosophy by styling themselves transcendentalists” (T289, 291-292). Although Poe calls Horne’s drama dealing with the life of Pope Gregory VII “a fine tragedy,” he laments that the play is infected with Transcendentalist notions. The “profound and ennobling philosophy” to which Poe alludes is not precisely identified but is most reasonably assigned, given the obvious papal connection, as the general beliefs of Roman Catholicism. One might also imagine how Poe reacted to Orestes Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism in 1844. Brownson’s desire to become Catholic was a well-known fact beginning in 1843. George Lippard, as we have already noted, boldly stated that Brownson’s conversion was something that could only hurt Catholics. Poe, never one to speak well of the Transcendentalists, would most likely have agreed with his friend.

In Graham’s of June 1841, Poe reviewed T. B. Macaulay’s Critical and Miscellaneous Essays. Concerning Macaulay’s essay on Ranke, he questions whether Macaulay is writing true criticism or merely a summary of the work. Poe comments: “Macaulay’s tendency — and the tendency of mere logic in general — to concentrate force upon minutiae, at the expense of a subject as a whole, is well instanced in an article (in the volume now before us) on Ranke’s History of the Popes. This article is called a review. . . . In fact it is nothing more than a beautifully written treatise on the main theme of Ranke himself; the whole matter of the treatise being deduced from the History. In way of criticism there is nothing worth the name. The strength of the essayist is put forth to account for the ­[page 17:] progress of Romanism . . .” (T322-323). Whereas Poe disagrees with Macaulay’s assertions concerning the nature of theology and the human conception of the Deity, he does not seem the least upset with what Macaulay says about Ranke’s comments on the Catholic popes. Throughout his well-researched book, Ranke (who was a Lutheran) is remarkably non-partisan and largely favorable of his subject.

Finally, Poe refers once more to the papacy toward the conclusion of his second installment of “Marginalia” appearing in the December 1844 United States Magazine, and Democratic Review. In the humorous tone so typical of his editorial work, Poe writes: “I have at length attained the last page, which is a thing to thank God for; and all this may be logic, but I am sure it is nothing more. Until I get the means of refutation, however, I must be content to say, with the Jesuits, Le Seur and Jacquier, that ‘I acknowledge myself obedient to the decrees of the Pope against the motion of the Earth” ’ (P194). Here Poe refers to the edition of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica edited by the Jesuits Thomas Le Seur and Francois Jacquier. Although Poe’s tongue-in-cheek comments indicate that he does not agree with every Papal decree, even these remarks reveal a familiarity with the history and the pronouncements of the Church of Rome.

Another of the Catholic Church’s unique institutions is the Sacrament of Penance, more widely referred to as confession. An examination of one of Poe’s poems and two of his tales suggests that the Catholic concept of confession plays an important role in these works. Based in part on a popular eighteenth-century drama written by Nicholas Rowe, Poe’s “Tamerlane” re-tells the story of a humble near-Eastern youth who becomes a great conqueror. Although a devout Muslim, Tamerlane was said to have had a strong interest in Christianity. Poe not only relies on this aspect of Tamerlane’s legend, but goes on to add a distinctly Catholic element to his poem by casting the entire work as a confession. Interestingly, in a note appended to the opening stanza of the 1827 version, Poe provides his readers with some historical perspective by mentioning that Tamerlane “died in 1405, in the time of Pope Innocent VII” (M1:26). In the same note, Poe addresses the issue of having Tamerlane summon “a friar as a death-bed confessor . . .” ­[page 18:] (M1:26). As the poem opens, Poe’s hero refers to the cleric as “holy friar” and “father,” and implores him to “shrive me of the sin / Unearthly pride hath revell’d in — / I would not call thee fool, old man . . .” (M1:26-27). Tamerlane explains much of his life to the friar, and seems particularly upset to have forsaken true love in favor of power and pride: “Why did I leave it and adrift, / Trust to the fickle star within?” (M1:30). He seems to admire the holy man’s humility when he states: “I was ambitious — have ye known / Its fiery passion? — ye have not . . .” (M1:33). Toward the conclusion, the great warrior tells the “good friar” that “my eyes were still on pomp and power . . . ,” and he admits “What was there left me now? Despair — / A kingdom for a broken — heart” (M1:38-39). The dash used between “broken” and “heart” suggests a hesitation not uncommon of a penitent on the verge of revealing his most troubling sin to his confessor. Tamerlane is no devout Catholic eager to have his sins forgiven, but he does seem to achieve a moderate level of spiritual solace from his confession to the Catholic friar.

The interest in confession evident in the young Poe’s “Tamerlane” is also present in two of his later tales. Both “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Cask of Amontillado” feature protagonists who are confessing past transgressions, perhaps to priests. In “Imp” the speaker alludes to “faith in Revelation . . . purposes of God . . . the intentions of Jehovah . . . and the design of the Deity . . .” (M3:1219). Similar references in the tale’s opening paragraphs suggest that the discussion between the condemned prisoner and his listener has a religious context. Later in the tale, it becomes evident that the narrator is speaking directly to a visitor: “I have said thus much, that in some measure I may answer your question — that I may explain to you why I am here that I may assign to you something . . . of a course for my wearing these fetters . . .” (M3:1223-1224). The visitor is perhaps a cleric. Although there are various forms of Christian ministers, the confession-like nature of the speaker’s remarks suggests a Catholic priest. Here, Poe might have used once again the Catholic sacrament of Penance in this tale of guilt and — quite possibly — redemption. “Cask” also appears to rely on Poe’s knowledge of this Catholic sacrament. The Catholic “hints” in this tale, however, strike one as a bit more direct than those in “Imp.” For example, in the tale’s opening ­[page 19:] lines, Montresor, relating the details of his revenge on Fortunato, addresses an apparently concerned listener: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul . . .” (M3:1256). Who would know the secrets or “nature” of Montresor’s soul better than his parish priest? The tale’s apparent Catholic setting (France or Italy), the confessional nature of Montresor’s remarks, and the tale’s concluding words — “In pace requiescat,” which appear in the Catholic burial service being used at the time Poe wrote “Cask” — suggest Poe’s use of Catholic ritual and tradition. One might also be tempted to include “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the narrator certainly “confesses” his crime, but does so more as an insistence of his sanity than as an admittance of guilt.

Other Catholic references appear in Poe’s works. In “Bon-Bon,” Poe writes, “Volumes of German morality were hand and glove with the gridiron — a toasting fork might be discovered by the side of Eusebius . . .” (M2:101). Eusebius wrote an important early history of the Catholic Church. Poe again refers to this ecclesiastical scholar in “Lionizing”: “There was Theologos Theology. He talked of Eusebius . . . and the Council of Nice . . .” (M2:181). Convoked in 325 A.D., the First Council of Nice discussed important Church matters including the relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The bishops meeting at Nice also formulated the Nicene Creed, a prayer expressing the chief beliefs of the Catholic faith. “The Pit and the Pendulum” features a prisoner of the Inquisition on the verge of a horrible death. As he is about the fall to his demise, the narrator relates: “There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets. . . . An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies” (M2:697). Although Poe is clearly condemning the fanaticism of the Inquisition, we should note that it is General Lasalle and his French troops, most likely themselves Catholic, who save the prisoner from an extreme element within their own church.

In “The Black Cat,” Poe speaks of the narrator’s plans to dispose of his victim’s corpse: “I determined to wall it up in the cellar — as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims” (M3:857). Writing in “Pinakidia,” Poe alludes to an important ­[page 20:] part of Catholic ritual used on every church altar. He describes how “the origin of the phrase ‘corporal oath’ is to be found in the ancient usage of touching, upon occasion of attestation, the corporale or cloth which covered the consecrated articles” (P26). Even if we accept Pollin’s note that this information is from William Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Poe’s knowledge of this important piece of Catholic ceremony appears clear.

Finally, we should examine Poe’s review of James Fenimore Cooper’s Wyandott√©, or the Hutted Knoll. Writing in the November 1843 Graham’s, Poe makes a rather curious comment about one of the novel’s characters: “Jamie Allen, with his prate about Catholicism, is insufferable” (T485). In Chapter 21 of Cooper’s novel, we find Allen — a good Scottish Protestant Mason — making blatantly anti-Catholic remarks. No friend of Catholicism, Allan states: “ye’ll no deny that the creator’ o’ Rome wears a mask, and that Catholicity is, at the best, but a wicked feature to enter into the worship of God. . . . All Protestants . . . agree in condemning the very word catholic, which is a sign and a symbol o’ the foul woman o’ Babylon.”(22) By referring to Jamie Allen’s harshly negative comments about Catholicism as prate (empty and foolish), Poe appears to be defending the Church. It seems that in addition to demonstrating a familiarity with Catholic beliefs and rituals, Poe on occasion also expressed sympathy toward the Church of Rome.

The careful reader might well find other Catholic suggestions scattered throughout the Poe canon, but the case has been sufficiently made here for our purposes. We should now examine how Poe might have mined his understanding of Roman Catholicism in designing and writing some of his poems and stories. In this regard, we will deal with three of Poe’s tales, “Morella” (1835), “Ligeia” (1838), and “Eleonora” (1841). These short works are among some of the most intriguing literary prose produced during the nineteenth century and are best read as a sort of trilogy. On the surface, all three deal with a subject that fascinated not only Poe, but his nineteenth-century audience as well — the transmigration of souls. This doctrine concerns itself with the soul’s ability to return to Earth in various physical manifestations. The transmigration of souls (also known as reincarnation) is not a belief held by the Catholic Church. In fact, no traditional Christian church accepts the idea that a deceased person can return in some other physical ­[page 21:] form. As with all mainstream Christian denominations, however, the Catholic Church does accept the notions that each individual has a unique spiritual component within his or her physical being, and that the saved Christian is transformed into a new creature worthy of eternal salvation. Through the intercession of Christ, a sinful individual is “reincarnated” in a spiritual sense and prepared to experience a new and different form of life.

Despite the many sinister implications to which the concept of transmigrating souls lends itself — demonic possession being the most prominent — we should also examine the positive side of such transmigration.(23) Inherently, the basic Christian notion of “life everlasting” carries with it the implication that the soul has the ability to transcend physical existence in order to enter the spiritual realm of God. To be more specific, one of the ways that Roman Catholicism deals with the notion of eternal life is through its insistence on the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All of Christianity accepts Mary’s role as a woman who helped make humanity’s transition to heaven both possible and complete by giving birth to Jesus. Catholicism elevates her status substantially by granting her an active rather than a passive role in the process of salvation. Although Poe (as was typical for him) reworked his sources considerably, “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and “Eleonora,” whatever other prominent elements they might contain, reveal a familiarity with the Catholic Church’s teachings on the Mother of the Savior. Of primary importance to my discussion are the Mysteries of the Rosary, which I feel shed light on Poe’s portrayal of the women (and less directly of the men) in these three tales.

The Mysteries of the Rosary deal with various moments of significance in the lives of Mary and Jesus.(24) They provide a Catholic with the opportunity to meditate upon important dogma while reciting the Rosary. There are three groups of mysteries, which appear in the following sequence: the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Each of these groups recognizes five events, which for the sake of non-Catholic readers I will now describe.

The Joyful Mysteries are: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. The Annunciation occurred when the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. ­[page 22:] The Visitation deals with the visit of the pregnant Mary to her cousin Elizabeth — the mother of John the Baptist. (According to Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words “Blessed art thou among women.”) The Nativity is the birth of Christ. The Presentation is an event spoken of not in the gospels but in the apocryphal writings. Catholic doctrine, however, officially accepts the notion as fact. It commemorates the presentation of the Blessed Mother as a child in the temple where she served and was trained. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple is when the young Jesus, thought to be lost, was found by his mother as he was preaching to an astonished audience of learned religious men. Notice that these beliefs are from Mary’s perspective and all deal with child-bearing and child-rearing, both of which bring pain and joy.

The Sorrowful Mysteries are more-or-less self-explanatory. They deal with suffering and death: Jesus’s Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion. All of these events share the common thread of the ordeals of Jesus and his Mother, who was forced to endure the sorrow of watching her son suffer and die. Basic Catholic belief, however, states that sorrow, suffering, and death are only temporary for they will eventually lead us to eternal salvation.

The Glorious Mysteries rely on this necessity of experiencing death: the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin. The Resurrection is Christ’s conquering of death by rising from the grave. The Ascension is when Jesus, in the presence of his Mother, the Apostles, and his disciples, rose into Heaven forty days after his resurrection. The Descent of the Holy Spirit occurred on Pentecost, when the Apostles realized that they were given the mission of preaching Jesus’s message. (Catholicism considers this event the “birthday” of the Catholic Church.) The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is based on the doctrinal lesson that Mary, at the time of her death, was immediately taken up into Heaven “body and soul,” so as not to endure the corruption of the body associated with death. I wish to add here that the death of this beautiful woman intrigued the Church as much as the general concept fascinated Poe. The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin as Queen of Heaven is specifically the arrival and reception of the ­[page 23:] assumed Mary into heaven [[Heaven]]. All of these Mysteries celebrate the triumph of spirit and eternal life over earthliness.

Reading the three tales in chronological order by date of publication reveals a progression similar to that of the Mysteries of the Rosary. Of course we need to bear in mind that any parallels between these Catholic beliefs and Poe’s tales are subject to a great deal of artistic license. In creating his own characters and plot lines, Poe usually adapted his sources very freely, often blending and modifying them in highly imaginative ways. There are no exact similarities between Mary and Jesus and the women and male narrators in Poe’s tales. Neither Morella, Ligeia, nor Eleonora is Mary, and none of Poe’s husband-narrators should be taken as an attempt to present a clearly defined Christ-figure. In fact, it appears that Poe was more interested in invoking the themes and moods of these Catholic dogmas than in establishing a point by point duplication of them. Although not every event in the three tales links the respective story to these Catholic traditions, and to be sure Poe emphasized some of the Mysteries more than others, I feel that these Church doctrines nevertheless provide us with an interesting new fashion of reading “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and “Eleonora.” Granted, Poe might not have consciously set out to do so, but the order in which the tales were written parallels (for the most part) that of the sequence of the Mysteries of the Rosary. At the very least, we should admit that this coincidence proves most interesting for readers to ponder.

The presence of some biblical-style words in all three of the stories links them even more closely together and perhaps provides us with another clue concerning Poe’s intentions. For example, “thy,” “thee,” and “thou,”as well as “-th” and “-st” suffixed words appear in all three stories and only in these stories. In “Morella” we read, “but her whom in life thou didst abhor in death thou shalt adore. . . . How knowest thou this . . . how knowest thou all of this, Morella?” (M2:228), while in “Ligeia” Poe writes: “And the will therein lieth, which dieth not” (M2:314). Later in the tale, Ligeia speaks the words “Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who — who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor?” (M2:319). At the conclusion of “Eleonora,” Poe again employs a style reminiscent of Scripture: “‘sleep in peace! — for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is ­[page 24:] Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora” (M2:645).

“Morella,” in effect, sets the stage as the first tale in Poe’s woman-oriented trilogy of the transmigration of souls. Perhaps the work might best be understood in terms of Poe’s familiarity with the Joyful Mysteries. Yes, there are elements of terror present in the story, but we must recall that unlike “Ligeia,” “Morella” presents the transmigratory act in relation to a most natural process — childbirth.(25) The beautiful young woman in the tale manages to cheat death by giving birth to a daughter, through whom she manages, in a sense, to remain alive. Morella’s name derives from that of the famous Venerable Mother Juliana Morell, a sixteenth-century Catholic nun known for her intelligence and purity. She resembles the Virgin Mary in the sense that she too realizes that the pangs of childbirth and the attendant necessities of raising a child become necessary to ensure the physical and spiritual survival of life.

One of the key elements in justifying this view rests upon the poem Poe included in most of the published versions of “Morella.” The “Catholic Hymn” in the tale makes clear Poe’s knowledge of the Church’s tradition concerning Mary. Its presence suggests to me that Poe might have spent time examining the various doctrines focusing on the Virgin Mary. Poe’s interest seems all the more likely when we realize that many of the official pronouncements issued by the American Catholic Church during the 1820s, 30s, and 40s deal with the increasingly important position of Mary in Catholic belief and ritual. Morella pleads: “Mother of God! Be with me still . . . / My soul — lest it should truant be — / Thy love did guide to shine and thee” (M2:228), thereby acknowledging Mary’s pivotal role in salvation. As Mabbott illustrates, the poem echoes the Catholic prayer the “Hail Mary.”(26) Many a Catholic has asked the Virgin to intercede on his or her behalf, and Morella seems to be following the same path. Almost immediately following this poem/prayer, Morella informs her husband: “I am dying yet shall I live. Therefore for me, Morella, thy wife, hath the charnel-house no terror — mark me not even the terrors of the worm” (M2:228). Again, we need to wonder if Poe (in terms of one of the central concepts expressed in the Glorious Mysteries) is trying to remind his readers of the Blessed Virgin, who through her Assumption into Heaven was spared the decay of the grave. ­[page 25:]

Yet we need to proceed cautiously here. If Poe relies on the traditions of the Joyful Mysteries, he does invert the focus in significant ways. The story’s narrator, for example, remains crucial to any interpretation of the work, as will also prove true in “Ligeia” and “Eleonora.” Morella “visits” with the speaker (who like Elizabeth to Mary, acknowledges Morella’s “uniqueness”), and “announces” to him: “when my spirit departs shall the child live — thy child and mine . . .” (M2:228). Unlike Morella, of course, Mary did not die giving birth. The narrator’s remarks, “but indeed the time had now arrived when my wife’s society oppressed me like a spell” (M2:227), perhaps mirror the feelings of St. Joseph, Mary’s husband, who one day realized that he was not the one responsible for his wife’s pregnancy. As we are told early in the story that the speaker “never spoke of love, or dreamed of passion” (M2:225), and that the fires burning within him “were not of Eros” (M2:225), we might wonder who fathered Morella’s child. Yet a “nativity” of sort takes place, and, as the years pass, the fruit of Morella’s womb “presents” herself as one possessing great intelligence, and our narrator speaks with the intensity of a good Catholic paying tribute to the Virgin: “I loved her with a love more fervent and more holy than I thought it possible to feel on earth” (M2:228). Similar to those people who discovered the presumably lost boy Jesus preaching in the temple, the girl’s father is surprised by “the tumultuous thoughts which crowded upon me while watching the development of her mental being” (M2:234). Shocked to hear “the lessons of experience [that] fell from the lips of infancy . . .” (M2:234), the narrator feels the mixed emotions no doubt present in Mary’s mind when she found her child revealing an intelligence far beyond his years. The physical and emotional dramas associated with children produce both pain and joy for parents. Similar to the Joyful Mysteries, “Morella” emphasizes that doubt frequently walks side by side with hope.

The Sorrowful Mysteries further stress this point. Despite their promise of life everlasting, the gruesome figures of suffering and death touched even Mary and her son. Ligeia and her narrator-husband know the feeling from personal experience. In Poe’s story the soul of Ligeia violently possesses the Lady Rowena’s body — a preternatural transferal quite unlike that in “Morella.” Visions of death terrify Ligeia and the speaker. The narrator’s agony, echoing ­[page 26:] that of Christ (and that of Mary as she had to endure watching her son in pain), prompts him to admit: “my memory is feeble through much suffering” (M2:310). In fact, some of his words suggest that he is more of a son to Ligeia than a husband. Two examples come readily to mind: first, when he describes his “child-like confidence” in Ligeia (M2:316), and later when he admits that without her he was “but as a child groping benighted” (M2:316). Of course, Ligeia’s power becomes unbearable, and the Lady Rowena becomes an innocent victim who dies so that Ligeia can return to life.

But even Ligeia fears the Grim Reaper. After her husband recites, quite inappropriately, “The Conqueror Worm,” she implores: “Oh God! O Divine Father — shall these things be undeviatingly so? — shall the Conqueror be not once conquered?” (M2:319). These lines suggest Christ’s agony in the garden and the inquiry he made of his Heavenly Father as to whether the cup might pass. “Crushed into the very dust with sorrow” (M2:320), the speaker must live without any hope that one day his soul will know everlasting bliss. We cannot ignore the Gothic elements in “Ligeia,” but at the same time we must recall that great literary works have many facets; like precious diamonds, they glitter in many different fashions. I find it reasonable to assert that Poe’s apparent familiarity with the Sorrowful Mysteries allows us to perceive how he used “Ligeia” as the second stage of his three-part treatise on the soul’s journey.

The good Catholic believes that death ceased being a genuine threat once the dream kindled by Mary and her son came to its fruition. The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary reveal (to echo the words of John Donne) that death itself had died. In “Eleonora” we see Poe apparently relying on the Glorious Mysteries as he pens a tale that employs the “returning woman” motif to emphasize the positive aspects of humanity’s quest for eternal peace.

Unlike “Morella” or “Ligeia,” “Eleonora” engenders little or no debate as to the nature of its intentions. The piece ends happily, and the narrator experiences a bliss rarely felt by the typical Poe protagonist. His name, “Pyrros,” which appears only in the first edition of the tale, means “ardent,” no doubt a hint as to the nature of his affection for his beloved. Poe’s epigraph (the translation of the Latin becomes “Under the protection of a specific form, the soul is safe”) reveals that the story centers on spiritual and physical rejuvenation. Of course, the Glorious Mysteries do likewise. The ­[page 27:] Resurrection and the Ascension show how the body transcends material reality as it prepares to enter eternity. Indeed, when the speaker realizes that men who explore the nature of infinity “obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awaking, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret” (M2:638), he is expressing feelings similar to those of Catholics who faithfully meditate on the Glorious Mysteries while reciting the Rosary. The narrator (much like the Apostles on Pentecost) becomes truly enlightened.

The physical characteristics of the Valley of the Many Colored Grass suggest an Edenic scene of never-ending beauty. Even the asphodels, flowers traditionally associated with death, are not pale, as is usually the case, but red. They serve as tokens of eternal love. As the passion of the two lovers increases, so does the number of asphodels. The “soft green grass . . . [and] its exceeding beauty spoke to our hearts, in loud tones, of the love and of the Glory of God” (M2:640). The loveliness of Eleonora, like that of the Virgin Mary, attests to the beauty found in Heaven.

Yet all things earthly must pass. We should recall that even Jesus and Mary had to “die” before they could, respectively, rise from the dead and be assumed into Heaven. Death does rear its head in the valley, and the woman whose loveliness “was that of the Seraphim” (M2:641) — presumably as Mary’s must have been — succumbs. After Eleonora’s death, the asphodels, usually employed by writers as symbols of finitude, die themselves, thereby providing readers with another hint of Eleonora’s power over death. Disappointed by the turn of events, the speaker recalls that earlier she promised him that “she would watch over me in . . . spirit when departed” (M2:642). We might remember that Christ made a similar assurance to his followers prior to his Ascension.

The tale tells us little of the specifics surrounding Eleonora’s death. Although Poe’s description of the disappearance of the flowers and the fading of the green grass might serve as a metaphorical representation of Eleonora’s death and decay, the tale, unlike “Morella” and “Ligeia,” does not mention any of the details of her death nor does it speak of the usual preparations of the corpse for the grave. “Eleonora” describes neither the disease nor death-agonies. It mentions nothing of the mortal coil’s physical corruption, the tomb, the charnel house, or the cerements of death. Perhaps by not mentioning the inevitable decay that was cited in “Morella” and ­[page 28:] “Ligeia,” Poe expresses in “Eleonora” a notion similar to the Catholic idea of the “incorruptible body.” Catholic tradition teaches that neither Jesus nor Mary experienced the decay of death. In fact, the Church believes that various saints, including St. Cecily and St. Francis Xavier, were spared the corrupting, natural processes associated with physical death.(27) We might assume here that Eleonora, in a sense, is “assumed” into Heaven, and that Poe appears to be relating a situation reminiscent of Mary’s Assumption.

The speaker’s devotion to her (like the Catholic’s veneration of the Virgin) remains for the most part genuine, but he eventually marries the beautiful Ermengarde. True, Poe does imply the theme of the transmigration of souls at this point. In addition, however, we should note that by remarrying, our speaker continues to express that which the Glorious Mysteries assure us the next life will have in store for all believers — undying love and unintermittent happiness. Although he had promised to remain faithful to Eleonora, the power of love seemingly prompts him to forget his oath. Ironically, his newfound devotion to his earthly bride actually complements his love for Eleonora. Toward the tale’s conclusion, he hears the words which bless and comfort him: “Sleep in peace! — for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora” (M2:645). Human love, operating in a fashion similar to the love for humanity expressed by Jesus and Mary, has redeemed him.

Although commentators have not really probed the issue to any great degree, I believe that some of the doctrines of the American Catholic Church in the nineteenth century influenced the creative imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. In all likelihood, the splendor of Catholic rituals would have appeared attractive to him, and the Church’s devotion to the “beautiful woman” Mary would parallel what was for Poe a prominent theme in his poems and tales. Are there other texts with subtle references to Catholicism? Are there elements of the Catholic Mass in “The Masque of the Red Death”? Are there echoes of Thomas Aquinas in Eureka? Such answers will have to wait for other studies.

In closing, scholars and readers must recall that Poe never professed to be a Catholic. Indeed, no one has discovered any official connection to the Catholic Church. Yet the prominence of the ­[page 29:] Church in America, especially during the 1830s and 1840s, important contacts he counted among his friends, and some of the suggestions appearing in a number of his works, lead me to posit that Poe evinced more than a mere passing interest in Roman Catholicism.

­ [page 29:]


1.  Subsequent references to the “Church” are a simplified designation for the Catholic Church. There should be no confusion with other Christian denominations individually or collectively.

2.  William Mentzel Forrest, Biblical Allusions in Poe (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1928), p. 12.

3.  Marvin Felheim, “ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ” Notes and Queries, n.s. 1 (October 1954), pp. 447-448; Donald Pearce, “The Cask of Amontillado,” Notes and Queries, n.s. 1 (October 1954), pp. 448-449; Kathryn Montgomery Harris, “Ironic Revenge in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (Spring 1969), pp. 333-335; James E. Rocks, “Conflict and Motive in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ” Poe Studies, 5 (December 1972), pp. 50-51; Kent Bales, “Poetic Justice in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ” Poe Studies, 5 (December 1972), p. 51; Charles A Sweet, Jr., “Montressor’s Underlying Motive: Resampling ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ” University of Mississippi Studies in English, n.s. 6 (1988), pp. 273-275.

4.  Richard P. Benton, “Poe’s ‘The Cask’ and the ‘White Webwork Which Gleams,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction, 28 (Spring 1991), pp. 183-194.

5.  Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 333; Jeffrey Myers, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), p. 9.

6.  Thomas Ollive Mabbott, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol 2: Tales and Sketches (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1978), p. 421, note 25.

7.  Readers desiring more detailed information on the history of the Catholic Church in America, the Provincial Councils of Baltimore, and the anti-Catholic movement during the 1830s and 1840s should consult James Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Jay P. Dolan, Catholic Revivalism: The American Experience, 1830-1900 (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978); John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956); Daniel Sergent, Our Land and Our Lady (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1939); Richard R. Duncan, “Catholics and the Church in the Antebellum Upper South,” in Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture, eds. Randall M. Miller and Jon L. Wakelyn (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983); Peter Guilday, A History of the Councils of Baltimore, 1791-1884 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932; reprinted, New York: Arno Press, 1969).

8.  Hennesey, American Catholics, pp. 104-105; Ellis, American Catholicism, p. 74; Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 (Boston: G.K Hall and Company, 1987), pp. 92-93, 208, and 213; John Ward Ostrom, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 18 and 21.

9.  The opening sentence of this letter reads “I should have presumed upon the politeness of Mr. R. Walsh for a personal introduction to yourself, but was prevented by his leaving town the morning after my arrival” (Ostrom, p. 18). It is also possible, of course, to interpret this sentence as meaning that Poe tried to see Walsh, but missed him.

10.  Hennesey, American Catholics, pp. 83, 104; Ellis, American Catholicism, p. 74; Thomas and Jackson, The Poe Log, pp. 207, 220, 231; Ostrom, Letters, pp. 98-99.

11.  Maryland Historical Society, Kennedy Papers, MS.1336.

12.  Quoted in Thomas and Jackson, The Poe Log, p. 231.

13.  Hennesey, American Catholics, p. 103. ­ [page 30:]

14.  For information on Chandler’s opinions of Poe’s literary talents, see Thomas and Jackson, The Poe Log, pp. 263, 268, 279, 302, 427, 447, and 448.

15.  Quoted in Thomas and Jackson, The Poe Log, p. 448.

16.  See Thomas and Jackson, The Poe Log, p. 644; and Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), p. 520.

17.  Emilio De Grazia, “Poe’s Devoted Democrat, George Lippard,” Poe Studies, 6 (June 1973), pp. 6-7; Burton R Pollin, “More on Lippard and Poe,” Poe Studies, 7 (June 1974), pp. 22-23; David S. Reynolds, George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), pp. 256-257.

18.  See Ostrom, Letters, pp. 242-243.

19.  David S. Reynolds, George Lippard (Boston: Twayne, 1982), p. 76.

20.  George Lippard, The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall, A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery and Crime (Philadelphia: G.B. Zeiber and Co., 1844; reprinted as The Monks of Monk Hall, edited with an introduction by Leslie A. Fiedler, New York: The Odyssey Press, 1970), p. 267.

21.  Forrest, Biblical Allusions, pp. 136, 139, and 154.

22.  James Fenimore Cooper, Wyandotte; or, The Hutted Knoll (New York: Collier, 1892), p. 164.

23.  For a discussion of some of these sinister elements, see my Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992), pp. 63, 70, and 83-86,

24.  For information on the Mysteries of the Rosary, consult Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), pp. 104, 316, 406, and 560.

25.  “The Assignation” features another mother whose child is a subject of no mean focus (albeit brief). The Marchesa Aphrodite, surely a Catholic, is described in terms redolent of Madonna iconography.

26.  See Mabbott, 1:217. On pages 222-224 of Vol. 2, Mabbott notes that Poe’s plot for the tale comes from Henry Glassford Bell’s story “The Dead Daughter.” This work includes the line “and may the Holy Virgin protect me. . . .” In Vol. 1, page 217, Mabbott also mentions in a discussion about ­ [page 31:] the poem “Catholic Hymn,” originally published without title in “Morella,” that “In the J. Lorimer Graham copy of The Raven and Other Poems the poet struck out the word ‘Catholic’ — a sign (a passage in ‘For Annie’ is another) that he himself revered Our Lady.” In “For Annie” (see M1:458), Poe writes: “the queen of the angels / to shield me from harm” (M1:458).

27.  Herbert J. Thurston, S. J., and Donald Attwater, eds., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. 4 (New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1956), pp. 404, and 480-481.

Works referred to frequently in the text are noted parenthetically, prefixed by a letter code as follows:

M = Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol 1: Poems (1969) and vols 2-3: Tales and Sketches (1978) (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University)

P = Pollin, Burton R., ed., The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, The Brevities: Pinakidia, Marginalia, and Other Works (New York: Gordian Press, 1985)

R = Reynolds, David S., ed., George Lippard, Prophet of Protest: Writings of an American Radical, 1822-1854 (New York: Peter Lang, 1986)

T = Thompson, G. R., ed., Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, (New York: The Library of America, 1984)



This lecture was delivered at the Seventy-second Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 2, 1994.

© 2000 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

The original printing includes the following prefatory entry:


I would like to thank Professor Benjamin F. Fisher (of the University of Mississippi) and Mr. Jeffrey A. Savoye (of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore) for going above and beyond the call of duty in assisting me with the revisions I made to this lecture. Thanks must also go to Professor Kåre Hegland of Stavanger College (Stavanger, Norway) and to Sue Ellen (my wife) for their helpful comments and timely assistance.


[S:1 - UFC, 1994] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Usher's Forgotten Church? (M. L. Burduck, 1994)