Text: David Robinson, “‘Ulalume’ — The Ghouls and the Critics,” Poe Studies, June 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 8:8-10


[page 8, column 2, continued:]

“Ulalume” — The Ghouls and the Critics

University of Wisconsin

In his weaker moments, the student of Poe may feel a wistful appreciation for that culprit Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who published “Ulalume — A Ballad” without the profound but puzzling last stanza (1). Although the stanza adds new dimensions of meaning to the poem, it also adds layers of complexity to that meaning. The stanza poses a question which radically shifts the focus of the poem from the narrator, from Astarte, and even from the tomb of Ulalume, to the “woodlandish ghouls” who have been mentioned previously only in landscape description. Did they draw up “the spectre of a planet” [101], and bar the narrator from the secret “hidden in these words?” [100]. Although this question is never answered, that it was asked is a key to the narrator’s mind, and thus a key to our understanding of the poem. Yet there has been a prevalent critical misunderstanding in the interpretation of these “ghouls” and the narrator’s reference to them. A careful reassessment of the role of the “ghouls” in the poem will suggest an unexplored source of the inner conflict of the narrator and a new approach to its eventual resolution.

We know almost nothing about these ghouls when the narrator asks his final question, except their general association with death and graveyards, and the standard notion that they plunder graves and feed upon corpses. But, taking the narrator’s question as a hypothesis about them, we can discern some necessarily tentative facts concerning the ghouls. The narrator blames, or credits, the ghouls for attempting to keep him from the discovery of some forbidden knowledge, or “secret.” Thus the ghouls are seen as a force working against the narrator’s [page 9:] total realization of all he could know. The narrator further speculates that the ghouls have attempted to bar his way by drawing up “the spectre of a planet” [101]. The planet is the “miraculous crescent” [35] Astarte, or Venus, a vision of which has tempted him to pursue it against the urgings of Psyche, his mistrustful soul. Exactly what Astarte represents, be it a “sexual temptress” as Carlson suggests (2), or a vision of the ideal, as Mulqueen suggests (3), is not of immediate concern. What should be noted is that Astarte is seen as the product of the ghouls, something they have “drawn up” [101] from “the limbo of lunary souls” [102]. Finally, the narrator describes them as “The pitiful, the merciful ghouls” [97], indicating his feeling that the ghouls have displayed a sympathy toward him in their action. It is ironic that any creatures who supposedly feed upon corpses could be called merciful, but the irony deepens when the nature of the ghouls’ mercy is fully understood.

Piecing these three facts together, critics of the poem have generally argued that the narrator sees the ghouls as well-intending beings who attempt, through the power of the vision of Astarte, to prevent his crushing discovery of the tomb of his lover. Such a view accounts for all the facts known about the ghouls. When, for example, the tomb of Ulalume is taken as the hidden secret, the ghouls display their mercy and pity by using Astarte to try to prevent the narrator’s discovery of the tomb, thus saving him the return of grief, the realization of death, sexual impotence, or whatever unpleasant things Ulalume can be taken to represent. In one of the earlier notes on “Ulalume,” Roy Basler argues that the ghouls,

unable to resurrect Ulalume, have drawn up a false image of love “from the Hell of planetary souls” in a misguided effort to forestall the lover’s discovery that love leads inevitably m death and the tomb (4).

Eric Carlson, in the most thorough study of the poem to date, concurs when he writes,

The woodlandish ghouls . . . in response to his buried grief and self-pity, function as a kind of Preudian censorship of the painful truth (“To bar our way and to ban it / From the secret that lies in these words”) by transferring his attention to Astarte (5).

These quotations are similar in their explanation of the ghouls, but differ in their evaluation of them. If, for example, knowledge of Ulalume is considered necessary as it is by Basler, the ghouls act detrimentally. If this knowledge is better left undiscovered, as Carlson thinks, then the ghouls act beneficially. Therefore, this view of the ghouls, though it explains them by fitting in the known facts about them, explains them in such a way that adds little insight to the poem. The final question, which we might assume to be important, is merely added dramatization and exposition of the previous action of the poem, because the explanation of the ghouls fits the previously established relative values of the poem. We are forced, as a result, to regard the final stanza as expendable “gothicizing” on Poe’s part, largely irrelevant to the poem’s development.

This interpretation of the ghouls, however, becomes questionable when the text of the poem is examined with regard to the route taken by the narrator after he has seen the vision of Astarte. The opening stanzas present [column 2:] the protagonist as an undirected wanderer. He is disturbed and out of step with his surroundings. He describes his heart as “volcanic” [13] and fills the second stanza with images of upheaval and unrest such as “Scoriac rivers” [14], “lavas that resdessly roll” [15], and “sulphurous currents” [16]. All of this aimless energy and dismrbance contrasts with the deadness of the landscape whose leaves are “crisped and sere” [2]. The restless wandering gives way, however, to a definite pursuit, when the narrator views Astarte. The speaker is tempted to follow the vision immediately, but must conquer Psyche’s fears and doubts about it before he can succeed. As the poem makes clear, the two then do proceed to follow the vision of Astarte. It is important to note where their path leads them. The speaker tells us,

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her

And tempted her out of her gloom —

And conquered her scruples and gloom;

And we passed to the end of the vista

But were stopped by the door of a tomb — [72-76]

Following the vision of Astarte leads them to the tomb of Ulalume. But if the critics of this passage were right, then the ghouls’ vision should have led them away from the tomb. If the ghouls display mercy and pity by attempting to hide the secret of the tomb, why then does their vision lead the narrator directly to the tomb? The implication is that the ghouls are far more sinister than the critics have realized. David Halliburton’s remarks on the narrator’s path exemplify the critical dilemma on this point He describes the poem as the description of a “journey to self-recognition” in which the mourner “transcends the facile identification with nature that led him to regard the spectra-star as a guiding light.” The “breakthrough” is the mourner’s cry, “Then my heart it grew ashen and sober” [82] . Thus the ghouls, despite their “generous” aim,

posed the greatest danger of all. Had it [the vision of Astarre] succeeded, it could have perpetuated the speaker’s obliviousness, enabling him to continue, treacherously forgetful, in a state of sin (6).

Halliburton feels that the ghouls have failed in a dangerous but well-meant delusion, but he overlooks the fact that the speaker’s recognition or “breakthrough” in line 82 is the result of discovering the tomb, and discovering the tomb is the result of following the ghouls.

James E. Miller’s defense of “Ulalume” stresses one point which must be kept in mind. The poem maintains “coherence,” he argues, only when “the narrator is . . . placed in the dramatic center of the poem” (7). We must look to the narrator, then, for a clue to the nature of the ghouls. That clue lies in the change the narrator undergoes in the poem and the emotions behind that change. As noted above, the narrator begins the poem in a state of extreme agitation and unrest. His volcanic heart, contrasting the ashen and dead surroundings, suggests a man out of step with what surrounds him, searching for something else. The speaker’s discovery of Astarte changes his aimless pursuit to a definite one, and also reveals the goal of the pursuit. Astarte has come, he says, to point him “To the Lethean peace of the skies” (46), a place where forgetful release from pain (“ether”) is combined with the “sighs” of relief and release. Hopefully, she [page 10:] will dry the speaker’s tears, shine on him “With love in her luminous eyes” [50]. Whether she is taken as an explicit sexual symbol, a symbol of the ideal or transcendent, or perhaps both, she represents a hope of release from the burning restlessness in the narrator’s mind. She is Lethean peace, the peace of forgetfulness.

After the shocking discovery of the tomb of Ulalume, the speaker again describes himself.

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober

As the leaves that were crisped and sere —

As the leaves that were withering and sere — (82-84)

This is a dramatic change from the speaker’s “volcanic heart” in the early part of the poem. There is no longer a disjunction with his surroundings, for both are “ashen” and dead. There is no longer the desire to wander, but rather remorse at having done so as the narrator cries, “Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?” [90]. The speaker has found an end to his wanderings, but discovered death, not fulfillment or the ideal. He has found peace, but it is a peace born of painful memory, not Lethean forgetfulness. It is a peace of death, not of bliss.

The poem builds to this irony and the ghouls are the supreme ironists. Mercifully and pitifully they give the speaker his wish for peace, but in so doing frustrate him all the more. Promising him the secret knowledge he lacks in Astarte, they give him knowledge of death which he wanted to forget in Ulalume. They kill him spiritually, inducing a psychological death as ghastly as the physical deaths which sustain them. But their irony is possible only because the speaker embodies a contradiction, one which all Romantic writers had to face. Hope of the ideal promises peace, but the promise spurs the Romantic quest or search, the opposite of peace. Hope is man’s undoing. The only escape from the dilemma is to give up hope in resignation. Although that ends the quest, it does so at the price of energy and life. This is, of course, no new theme in Poe’s work, but a forceful statement of the recurring motif that unity, or the ideal, or the secret of existence is intertwined with death. Thus the ghouls are not well-meaning deceivers, but cruel instruments through which the narrator sees the impossible disparity between his hopes and his abilities. Far from being deceivers, they are revealers, revealing his conflicting desire for peace and frantic effort to attain it.



(1) Rufus Wilmot Griswold, ed., The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850-1856), II, 20-22. Although Griswold’s reasons for the omissions cannot be known, nor the text upon which he based his edition of the poem, T. O. Mabbott suggests that he used a clipping of the poem and omitted the last stanza. See The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press 1969), 1, 415. Poe himself published the poem without the stanza at one point, apparently at the suggestion of Mrs. Whitman, later changing again to include the stanza. See Mabbott p. 423. The latest and most authoritative text of the poem is a manuscript sent to Susan Ingram by Poe, dared September 10, 1849, which includes the stanza. The manuscript is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library. See Mabbott, p. 415. Griswold’s omission, in all fairness, could possibly have arisen from his mistaking the revision as Poe’s final intention regarding the stanza. Numbers following quotations in the text refer to line numbers in Mabbott’s edition. [column 2:]

(2) Eric W. Carlson, “Symbol and Sense in Poe’s ‘Ulalume, “ American Literature, 35 (1963), 27.

(3) James E. Mulqueen, “The Meaning of Poe’s ‘Ulalume,’” American Transcendental Quarterly, 1 (1st Quarter 1964), 27.

(4) Roy P. Basler, “Poe’s ‘Ulalume,’” Explicator, 2 (1944), Item 49.

(5) Carlson, p. 33. For similar readings, see Floyd Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1969), p. 229; David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 152; and Mulqueen, p. 30.

(6) Halliburton, p. 152.

(7) James E. Miller, Jr., “Ulalume Resurrected,” Philological Quarterly, 34 (1955), 202.


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