Text: Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Dickens and Poe: Pickwick and ‘Ligeia’,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:14-16


[page 14, column 2:]

Dickens and Poe: Pickwick and “Ligeia”

Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania

Although several studies of the Dickens-Poe relationship have appeared, none, so far as I can determine, explores the influence of “A Madman’s MS.,” a tale in the eleventh chapter of the Pickwick Papers, upon “Ligeia.” In his critique of the short tales in Pickwick, Edgar Johnson writes, without elaboration, that only the saving grace of Dickens’ humor prevented him from becoming “a fellow wanderer with Edgar Allan Poe through regions of haunted and phantasmal dread.” Other critics have remarked upon the similarities between the two tales, since they were first noticed by the late Thomas O. Mabbott, but they have not probed beyond the stage of mere mention (l). I shall examine Poe’s borrowing from and modification of Dickens’ tale, hoping thus to add further insight into Poe’s admiration for Dickens’ writing and, indeed, into his own artistic imagination at work. Other sources for “Ligeia” have been suggested (2), but that Dickens’ tale might have been just as, or more, important an inspiration will be made clearer in subsequent paragraphs.

Poe reviewed Pickwick Papers in the Southern Literary Messenger of November 1836. Most of his notice consists of a reproduction of nearly three-fourths of the original “A Madman’s MS.” That Poe borrowed much from the portion he quotes and helped himself substantially from others is unquestionable. “Ligeia” first appeared in the Baltimore American Museum, September 18, 1838, and perhaps Poe actually began to write it soon after he reviewed Pickwick, for no exact date of composition can be assigned for this as for most of his other tales.

Poe’s interest in Dickens stemmed from the American publication of some of the Sketches by Boz and Pickwick, and his praise for the British author continued to emphasize the value of his shorter pieces above all of his subsequent novels. This is small wonder in one who himself turned from poetry to prose, particularly to the short tale, “for bread and fame,” as Mabbott has so succinctly phrased it (3). Poe’s chief ambition was to establish a literary magazine of peerless artistic value, and he never missed an opportunity to champion the short tale, that [page 15:] is, the characteristic magazine fare of his day and the genre in which he thought he worked best. He would naturally praise in an already established writer what he considered his own forte. Contemporaneous readers would have found in “Ligeia,” as in “A Madman’s MS.,” another of the Blackwoods sort of terror tales. Using the words of his own Thingum Bob, Poe might well say: “Through sunshine and through moonshine — I — wrote. What I wrote it is unnecessary to say” (Works, VI, 27). I think, however, that examining the “whatness” of “Ligeia” may indeed tell us something more about Poe’s artistic impulses.

Both Dickens’ and Poe’s tales might well be called madmen’s manuscripts, not only the sort of provender familiarly purveyed in Blackwood’s but also “relished by every man of genius,” as Poe characterized them (4). Both tales deal in what Poe — in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” — was heralding as the chief hallmark of popular fiction: “Sensations . . . are the great things after all . . . . If you wish to write forcibly . . . pay minute attention to the sensations” (Works, II, 274). Actually Poe surpasses Dickens in detailing his narrator’s sensations, and in situation, setting, and even in more minute matters of phrasing, Dickens had prepared the essential groundwork for Poe to fashion into something better. Besides being mad s both narrators write long after the events they describe have occurred (or at least we are led to think in “Ligeia” that the events have happened long ago), both have memories which they deprecate but which can recall surprisingly particular details from the past when necessary to the telling of their stories, and both have come to their present mentally crumbled states because of unhappy marriages to lovely young girls. These ravishing brides detest their husbands, have been married to them for financial reasons, and, ultimately, sicken and die in consequence of their terrifying unions — although the narrator’s mere dallying with thoughts of murder in Dickens is, in my opinion, exceeded in Poe by the actual poisoning of Rowena (6). Both narrators are opulently wealthy, both give way to their mad impulses intermittently, both realize their uncertain mental states and are fascinated by their disintegrating mentalities, and both, finally, record their similar progressions into entire madness.

Certain parallels in phrasing require comment. Both tales open by disclaiming the reliability of the tellers’ memories. Poe’s begins, “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where I first became acquainted with the Lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering: or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low, musical language, made their way into my heart by paces, so steadily and stealthily progressive, that they have been unnoticed and unknown.” Significantly the portion of “A Madman’s MS.” which Poe quotes in the Southern Literary Messenger notice begins: “I don’t remember forms or faces now, but I know that the girl was beautiful. I know she was; for in the bright moonlight nights, when I start up from my sleep, and all is quiet about me, I see, standing still and motionless in one corner of this cell, a slight and wasted figure, with long black hair, which, [column 2:] streaming down her back, stirs with no earthly wind, and eyes that fix their gaze on me, and never wink or close.” One might think thar Dickens’ and Poe’s copy for the printer had gotten shuffled, although Poe’s last sentence adds psychological depth to the impact of Ligeia’s beauty upon her husband’s strange psyche. In both works the men continue to be particularly affected by their wives’ eyes, Dickens’ narrator’s reaction of hatred modified by Poe into irresistible and passionate love, certainly an improvement over Dickens’ fairly flat statement of the matter. The effect of confused time is also more elaborate in Poe’s handling, which is considerably longer than Dickens’, thus intensifying the dreaminess.

Their wives’ lovely hair enchants both narrators, although Poe again surpasses Dickens’ low-keyed description of “long black hair” in “the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting the full force of the Homeric epithet ‘hyacinthine.’” This refulgence results from impassioned love rather than the constant hate borne by Dickens’ narrator for his wife. Poe also Gutdistances Dickens in the use of hyperbolically detailed physical characteristics to intensify the narrator’s distorted mental state. Poe’s more lengthy description of Ligeia’s beauties prepares for the important turning point at the end of the story, when the narrator witnesses the metamorphosis of blonde Rowena into dark Ligeia: “and there stream[ed] forth, into the rushing atmosphere of the chamber, huge masses of long and dishevelled hair. It was blacker than the raven wings of the midnight!” The italics, the hyperbolic nature of the sentence, and the positioning of the “rushing atmosphere” (which may symbolize or reinforce the oncoming madness of the husband) along with the final “midnight,” in word and punctuation compress the narrator’s ultimate and intense entrance into his personal dark night of the soul (7).

Poe’s recounting of the family pressure upon Rowena to marry her husband follows directly in the path of Dickens, who writes: “The old man had a daughter, and the young men a sister; and all the five were poor. I was rich! and when I married the girl, I saw a smile of triumph upon the faces of her needy relatives, as they thought of their well-planned scheme and their fine prize.” Poe rewords this into “Where were the souls of the haughty family of the bride, when, through thirst of gold, they permitted to pass the threshold of an apartment so bedecked a maiden and a daughter beloved?” But whereas Dickens’ mention of greed comes toward the end of two paragraphs relating the effects of the narrator’s wealth upon the world at large, Poe’s is more subtly inserted into a long paragraph regaling the reader with details of the gruesome bridal chamber, as if to emphasize the self-centeredness of the narrator, whose description serves only to deepen our awareness of his disintegrating psyche. And Dickens writes merely that his madman tenants a “rich glittering house,” while Poe surfeits us with disturbing details of the horribly imagined bridal chamber. It may be that the mere “cell” mentioned by Dickens is akin to this eerie room, for it becomes in effect a madman’s cell, and like Dickens’ madman, Poe’s is shut up with his “ghost” ever titillating his imagination from her nearby corner. Each bit of description makes us notice that Poe’s storyteller’s memory functions exceedingly clearly when he chooses to let us notice it, and thus he makes us mistrust his disclaimers [page 16:] concerning the strange fluid which all too implausibly — according to his account — is put into his wife’s wine so shortly before her death. Dickens’ madman contemplates poisoning his wife; Poe’s actually administers the fatal draught to his detested second wife.

Both narrators realize other than financial disadvantages inherent in their marriages. Dickens’ tells us that he knows his wife “would rather have been placed, stiff and cold in a dull leaden coffin,” than be married to him. Poe’s remarks that his bridal chamber is pentagonal shaped, that is, it resembles a coffin, and that the only light entering this vault-like room comes through a single pane of glass, of a “leaden hue,” which increases the ghastliness of the whole. Again Poe modifies his source, but the parallel phrasing sounds echoes. Both men in effect doom their wives to states of death-in-life, from which both women eventually succumb to genuine death.

Dickens’ narrator constantly reminds us that he hears eerie sounds and sees terrifying shapes, not the least terrifying of which is his own dead wife’s come to haunt him. Poe’s, too, hears strange noises, though the rustling draperies, since they are tangible, only point up the narrator’s mental crumbling with more plausible, subtle hinting than Dickens’ flat statement. In both tales arises the question: do these men see ghosts, or is their madness responsible for their visions? Ligeia is, to be sure, a more interesting figure than is the wife of Dickens’ narrator, and in death she becomes more vital than she was in life, as the other never does. Since Ligeia is so ephemeral, indeed because she may exist only as a figment of her husband’s imagination, Poe’s tale shows a sophisticated outdistancing of his model.

The whole conception of “forcibleness,” so important to Poe, as indicated in his critical dicta cited above, takes an interesting twist from model to modified product in his hands. In “A Madman’s MS.” it is the narrator who is so superhumanly possessed of will that he almost succeeds in his crazy designs. The concluding editorial comment tells us that the madman was “a melancholy instance of the baneful results of energies misdirected in early life,” the important words being “misdirected” and “energies,” for his narrative surely proves both his energies and their misdirection. In “Ligeia,” however, much similar energy and will have been bestowed upon the heroine. Indeed she is “ad soul,” or will, as is that other most energetic Poe heroine, the Signora Psyche Zenobia in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” written about the same time as “Ligeia” for more deliberately obvious parodic purposes. And while “A Madman’s MS.” is entirely a “hate story,” “Ligeia” is a love story, although Poe’s portraiture of how frightening love can be makes his source seem like primitive fare indeed. The dark poetic qualities of Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are nowhere in evidence in this ‘prentice work of the young Dickens, nor is the horrible love in those late Dickens novels handled so convincingly here.

I have tried to marshal! evidence to show how Poe used his Pickwick source for “Ligeia.” While admitting that “A Madman’s MS.” is not the sole source for Poe’s tale, I think that it is, clearly, an important one, if not the most important one. In concluding, no words are more appropriate than those of Poe himself: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition thee a true originality [column 2:] is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine” (Works, — IV, 737). Interestingly, these words appear in “Magazine Writing — Peter Snook,” an article which attends to some of the tricks of that trade so important to Poe — the trade of the fine literary periodical. In “Ligeia” then, is evidence to prove how cleverly Poe mastered all of the arts of combination he lists. Because both essay and tale were written about the same rime, we may opine that Poe set out immediately to produce such an exercise as he urges for good tale writing. In reviewing Lever’s Charles O’Malley some years later, Poe revealed some more about his own methods: “And . . . so will the writer of fiction, who looks sagaciously to his own interest, combine all votes by intermingling with his loftier efforts such amounts of less ethereal matter as will give general currency to his composition” (8). In “Ligeia” Poe attended to his interest by means of a loftier effort in the Blackwood mode, with a popular writer for a model.



(1) Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952), p. 163. Mabbott’s notes are in his edition of Selected Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Random House, 1951), pp. 419-420. In 1956 Jay Hubbell in “Poe,” Eight American Authors, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: MLA, 1956), p. 36, called attention to the Mabbott notes, but since that time nobody has examined the Pickwick “Ligeia” connection in detail. Other facets of the Dickens-Poe relationship appear in studies by Gerald G. Grubb, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 5 (1950), 1-22, 103-113, 209-222; Ada Nisbet, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 6 (1951), 295-302; Howard H. Webb, Jr., Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 15 (1961), 80-82; Edith Smith Krappe, American Literature, 12 (1940), 84-88.

I quote the original text of “Ligeia” from the Baltimore American Museum, September 18, 1838; quotations from Pickwick are from Edgar Johnson’s convenient Dell edition (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1964), because it does not differ substantially from the original. Other quotations from Poe are from The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York: Crowell, 1902), indicated in the text as Works hereafter. I am grateful for the gracious assistance by Duff and M. E. Gilfond, of Washington, D.C., and Eric W. Carlson in the preparation of this study.

(2) Mabbott, Selected Poetry and Prose, p. 419, suggests Scott’s Ivanhoe. Burton R. Pollin, Discoveries in Poe (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1970), p. 96, mentions Byron’s biography. Muriel West, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and Isaac D’Israeli,” Comparative Literature, 16 (1964), 20-29, suggests the influence of D’lsraeli upon Poe.

(3) “On Poe’s ‘Tales of the Folio Club,’” Sewanee Review, 36 (1928), 171.

(4) Graham’s Magazine, 20 (1842), 299.

(5) The madness of Poe’s narrator is discussed in Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe The Poet (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969), p. 184; James W. Gargano, “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” College English, 25 (1963), 178; Sidney P. Moss, “Poe as Probabilist in Forgues’ Critique of the Tales”; Joseph M. Garrison, Jr., “The Irony of ‘Ligeia.’” Both essays are in Richard P. Benton, ed., New Approaches to Poe (Hartford Conn.: 1970, the respective references on pp. 11, 14. Much recent criticism of “Ligeia” is synthesized in G. R. Thompson, “ ‘Proper Evidences of Madness’: American Gothic and the Interpretation of ‘Ligeia,’” ESQ, 18 (1972), 30-49. The question of the narrator’s madness is specifically addressed on p. 41.

(6) Stovall, p. 184; Thompson, pp. 39-40.

(7) Another critique, supporting my text, is that of David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 216-217.

(8) Graham’s Magazine, 20 (1842), 186.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1973]