Text: E. Arthur Robinson, “Cosmic Vision in Poe’s ‘Eleonora’,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:44-46


[page 44, column 1, continued:]

Cosmic Vision in Poe’s “Eleonora”

University of Rhode Island

“Eleonora” presents paradoxes both within the tale and in relation to Poe’s earlier stories. While a second lover usually brings horror to Poe’s characters, “Eleonora” concludes with virtually a blessing from the departed spirit: “‘Sleep in peace! . . . thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora’ “ (1). Why, then, with this conflict solved, does the narrator commence his history with reflections upon madness and dreams and a confession of a split within his “mental existence” (IV, 236)? Much commentary on this tale addresses its treatment of love, with interpretations varying from Platonic ascent to rationalized guilt (2). My purpose is to add a further dimension to these viewpoints by arguing that the paradoxes of “Eleonora” reflect the narrator’s increasing awareness of a close relation between matter and spirit. In spite of — perhaps partially as a result of — the favorable resolution of his broken vow, the speaker’s growing but incomplete consciousness of a possible cosmic unity brings “grey visions” that lead him to doubt his sanity.

Leaving aside a direct discussion of “love” (though nearly everything in the tale may ultimately center around that state), I wish to call attention to three salient features of the story. First is one that seldom escapes notice — the extraordinary degree to which surrounding nature corresponds to human experience. When young love comes to the protagonist, the natural phenomena of the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass burst brilliantly into light and color, with elements ranging from bright exotic flowers, birds, and fish to a golden atmosphere and Aeolian sounds. This burgeoning is in keeping with the age of the lovers, she at the close of the third and he the fourth “lustrum” of their lives. As expected, these fantastic elements fade with the death of Eleonora, and the reader accepts both changes as expressionistic manifestations of the lover’s moods. Excessive from a literal point of view, these details seem at first only an exceptionally beautiful execution of a Romantic convention in the use of nature.

A second feature complicates the role of nature in this work, however. The tale opens with one of Poe’s strongest statements regarding madness, likening it to the “loftiest intelligence” acting in conjunction with “disease of thought” or “moods of mind.” In the second paragraph the speaker links this possibility with periods of his life claiming lucidity of recollection for his “first epoch” and admitting “shadow and doubt” regarding the second and [column 2:] the present. Later he defines “the second era of my existence,” concerning which “a shadow gathers over my brain, and I mistrust the perfect sanity of the record” (IV, 241), as that following Eleonora’s death. The “present” presumably is the time of his current life with Ermengarde or, more certainly, the time of narration. What new influences so radically affect his mind? Since his love for both Eleonora and Ermengarde is relatively unaffected by the customary love-hate syndrome (and since, if tormented by failure of his vow to Eleonora, he finds that torment laid to rest by the spirit of Eleonora herself), it appears reasonable to look to other factors for an explanation. One answer may be that, in return for vows of constancy, the dying Eleonora has promised to return to her lover through elements of nature, “sighing upon me in the evening winds, or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels” (IV, 241). This, to his consciousness, she is able to do, both by day and night: “at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs” (emphasis added); “streams of a holy perfume floated ever . . . about the valley”; and once a “spiritual” kiss awakens him from “a slumber like the slumber of death” (IV, 242). Even Eleonora’s final reassuring message comes through an agency of nature, as the “soft sighs” of the night air through a lattice “modelled themselves into [her1 familiar and sweet voice.” This interfusion of spirit and matter provides the most persistent and repetitive motif in the varied events narrated after the death of Eleonora.

The third notable feature is a fact already mentioned: the introductory paragraphs represent a period of time later than the last event described in the tale as read in its printed order (3). Specifically, the first two paragraphs are written in the present tense; these convey a self-assessment of the narrator’s temperament, contain reflections upon madness and intuitive or “dream” concepts of eternity and define a division of his mind into “two distinct conditions” related to chronological periods of his life, the first of “lucid reason” and the second, as mentioned above, of his current strange state. In regard to the latter the narrator poses for the reader an unresolved choice (which seems also to be his own) between madness and intuition “upon the verge of the great secret” to which he invites the reader to “play . . . the Oedipus” or solver; also for the reader, but not himself, he adds a third option, to “doubt it altogether.” The remainder of “Eleonora,” recounting the tale of successive love for Eleonora and Ermengarde, is related wholly in the past tense except for two brief statements, one declining to record the penalty assigned to breaking the vow and the other a repetition of the “shadow” over his recollections of the “second era” of his life. Otherwise the preterite continues even through the concluding reassurance by the spirit of Eleonora (4). The critical implications of this narrative technique are several: first, such a method invites construing the tale as possessing two contrasting conclusions, a source of much of the variety in published commentary; second, because in describing his experiences with Eleonora and Ermengarde the speaker expresses no sense of “madness” at the time of the events, his agitation and uncertainties at the start of his narration must result from subsequent reflection after an unspecified lapse of time. This retrospection has reached subliminal levels, since his succeeding narration stresses not only a [page 45:] common problem of love but also the interaction of Eleonora’s spirit with elemental forces — the first its surface, the second possibly its “undercurrent,” of meaning. The interaction he observes could well suggest a “great secret” regarding the universal order of which man forms a part — a “dream by day” that can give meaning not only to a second terrestrial love but also to all love and lead to visions of a cosmic unity which the rational mind hardly dares to face openly. I might add that “Morella,” which bears the epigraph “Itself, by itself solely, ONE everlastingly, and single,” treats a somewhat analogous response to a vision of unity in the context of a love relationship (5).

The chronological position of “Eleonora” in the development of Poe’s thought reinforces this reading. In its original version “Eleonora” was published in 1841, between “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and Eureka ( 1848), both concerned, in part, with relations between matter and spirit. To Usher’s friend the “tottering of his lofty reason” is exposed through his growing awareness of “sentient” or spirit-approaching qualities of his ancestral mansion. The later Eureka proposes that matter and spirit differ in degree but not in kind. “Eleonora” presents an intermediate position between these views. Its ambiguity, explored at length in G. R. Thompson’s Poe’s Fiction, may cut both ways, as the narrator suggests that the “madness” or dreams of those who “dream by day” may be “glimpses of eternity . . . upon the verge of the great secret” (IV, 236). “Madness” speaks for itself, while on the positive side the “shadow and doubt” attached to the experience of the second epoch, in which unembodied human spirit acts through physical nature, may indeed clothe a “great secret.”

The epigraph to “Eleonora” reads “Sub conservatione formuae specificae salva animo,” translated in Eric Carlson’s notes as “In the preservation of its specific form lies the safety of the spirit of life” (p. 583). On the surface this statement runs counter to sharing of identity. Poe’s Eureka, however, postulates a universe that is dynamic and evolutionary Through an interplay of attraction and repulsion, entities which might be designated as individual, whether animate or inanimate, become “all . . . more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly and by faint intermeuliate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak — of an identity with God” (XVI, 314). Characters and events of “Eleonora” take their place in this dynamic process; the young lovers, in particular, require a heightened awareness of individual identity and place before growing, by “intermediate glimpses,” conscious of broader areas of love — an essentially Platonic concept (6). The epigraph, predicating a vital connection between form and spirit, expresses such an intermediate state and paves the way for contemplation of individual versus universal identity. Such intuitions shock the mind of the narrator and pose the question of whether his dream-vision of ever increasing unity, noble in its potentiality, justifies the psychological shock that leaves him, as his initial remarks testify, in a divided if not disintegrating state. Not until Eureka will a Poe persona achieve insight with impunity.

The influence on this tale of De La Motte Fouque’s Undine, published in German in 1811 and in an English translation reviewed favorably by Poe in 1839, supports the view of nature here presented. Briefly, Fouque’s half-myth [column 2:] concerns a water-sprite, Undine, existing in human form but limited by her natural element, her only possibility of acquiring a soul consisting of connubial union with mankind. Her marriage to the knight Huldbrand fulfills this condition, but when his love fades before her strangeness, she is forced back to her natural element, still possessing her new soul, and must return to slay her beloved Huldbrand with a kiss when he turns to a wholly human love. At the end of an extensive source study, Burton R. Pollin traces parallels between Undine and Eleonora (7). Both are associated with natural elements and both return to lovers who have forsaken them. Pollin’s only explanation of the differences in ending is the possible spiritual identity of Eleonora and Ermengarde. To this I would add the narrator’s grasp and acceptance of Eleonora’s affinities with nature, which Huldbrand lacks. Thus the dual “ending” of “Eleonora” is prepared for — a beneficent and widening love coupled with strange visions of the reflective and “dreaming” mind.

Spiritual-physical analogies bearing some resemblance to these in “Eleonora” form a continuing theme of Poe’s writing, representative examples being the combination of human and astronomical qualities in “Al Aaraaf,” the correspondence between the effect of Ligeia’s eyes and that of certain stars, the virtual identity of Usher and his mansion, the allegory of “The Island of the Fay,” and the landscape analogy in “The Domain of Arnheim.” In “The Poetic Principle” the spiritual nourishment of the poet may be found “in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven . . . in the gleaming of silver rivers — in the repose of sequestered lakes . . . in the sighing of the night-wind . . . in the scent of the violet — in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth . . . in the beauty of woman . . . [and] above all . . . in the altogether divine majesty — of her love “ (8). Several of these natural items, “which induce . . . the true poetical effect,” are the ones that constitute the means by which Eleonora’s soul communicates after death with her beloved.

Knowledge of the unrevealed “reasons” for the lover’s absolution, which may reasonably be associated with the “great secret” at the start of the tale, are assigned by Eleonora to a future of perfect knowledge “in Heaven” (IV, 244) . As a dramatic foreshadowing of portions of Eureka, the “great secret” might be phrased in terms of man’s relation not to two maidens but to the universe and deity, or in the words of the Note ending Eureka: “The pain of the consideration that we shall lose our individual identity, ceases at once when we further reflect that the process . . . is, neither more nor less than that of the absorption, by each individual intelligence, of all other intelligences (that is, of the Universe) into his own. That God may be all in all, each must become God” (XVI 336). The dramatic anticipation in “Eleonora” resides more in the tale itself than in the narrator’s preliminary comments. The merging of Eleonora’s spirit with nature, suggesting implications too elevated and dim to be labelled more than “dream[s] by day,” leaves the narrator unsettled between conviction of “loftiest intelligence” and “disease of thought” (IV, 236). Perhaps the greatest wonder is his capacity to leap from the love of two women, however “spirit-lifting” (IV, 243), to mind-shaking “grey visions” of “glimpses of eternity” which must suggest, at least, the expansion of the individual psyche to an all-embracing harmony with the universe.


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(1) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), IV, 244. All page references to Poe are from this edition.

(2) Eric W. Carlson’s caption for the tale, “Love As Redemption,” in Introduction to Poe: A Thematic Reader (Glenview, III.: Scott, Foresman, 1967), p. 322, well represents the usual view. Critical comment has tended toward the double-person theme as expressed by David Halliburton in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 144: “the survivor turns to a second woman only to discover that she is the inescapable first.” See also Sam S. Basket, “A Damsel with a Dulcimer: An Interpretation of Poe’s ‘Eleonora,’” Modern Language Notes, 73 (1958), 332-338; Richard P. Benton, “Platonic Allegory in Poe’s ‘Eleonora,’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 22 (1967), 293-297. In contrast, G. R. Thompson in Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 143-146, uses the introductory paragraph on madness, along with the narrator’s ambivalence between “lucid reason” and “shadow and doubt” in his recollections, to support a reading of the tale as ambiguously ironic, an illustration of “the human mind refusing to see the sinister implications within the . . . world of its own imagining.” My thesis relates indirectly to these interpretations, dealing with an element of the tale applicable to differing viewpoints.

(3) Other outstanding examples of retrospective narration in Poe’s tales are “Ligeia” and “William Wilson.”

(4) For many readers, the returning spirit of Eleonora is embodied in Ermengarde, who comes, even to the “strange city,” from “some far, far distant and unknown land” (IV, 243); but while my present proposal does not oppose that reading, neither is such an interpretation essential to its line of thought. To be sure, identification of two “intelligences” is an ideal step toward identification of all “intelligences,” but the narrator has already. experienced a more direct relation of Eleonora’s spirit to outside elements. Certainly, however, the dramatic union with Ermengarde could combine with the earlier broader manifestations to stimulate his acknowledged “vigor of fancy” (IV, 236).

(5) II, 27. See Martin Bickman’s “Animatopoeia: Morella as Siren of the Self,” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 29-32, which I read after submitting the first draft of this essay. Elements of his study of “identity” in “Morella” are applicable to my concern with “Eleonora.” References to Locke, Fichte, and Schelling in “Morella” provide the foundation for a philosophical conflict that can be deduced only sketchily in “Eleonora,” but the relation of the two stories to Eureka is similar. “Morella” (1835) faces these issues only between and within human egos (except, as Bickman points out, for possible implications of the epigraph of the tale), while the narrator of “Eleonora” is shocked further by inclusion of elements of the natural universe within his communion with Eleonora — thus bringing the later story closer to Eureka. Especially significant is Bickman’s concluding contrast between “disintegration” and a “complementary vision of . . . an extended and balanced soul that is at one with itself and the universe” — a state envisioned but not achieved.

(6) Benton, pp. 296, 297, links Oedipus’ solution of the riddle of the several ages of man to both the growing maturity and the higher states of love reached in “Eleonora.”

(7) “Undine in the Works of Poe,” Studies in Romanticism, 14 (1975), 59-74.

(8) XIV, 290, 291. For discussion of poetic beauty as effect, thus uniting the poet’s soul and external nature, see my “Poe as Master Craftsman,” Poe Studies, 6 (1973), 51; and Bickman, p. 31.


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