Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:19-20


[page 19, column 2:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do not require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should be one paragraph in form, not to exceed in length a page and a half of typescript, with all bibliographical citations enclosed in brackets. 

The “Moral” of “Ligeia” Reconsidered

In a note titled “The Moral Mr. Poe” [PN, 1 (1968), 23-24], Jay L. Halio calls attention to the moral undercurrent of several of Poe’s stories, especially those on “will” and especially “Ligeia.” Ligeia’s striving for eternal life through the power of her own will Halio calls “impious” and thus the “horror” of her reincarnation “is the moral.” I should like here to suggest another possibility for the “moral” undercurrent of the story. When Ligeia is resurrected, allegorically God and the universe are reunited. As Richard Wilbur remarks, “The universe, as Poe conceived it, is a poetic or artistic creation, a ‘plot of God. ’ It has come about through God’s breaking up of His original unity, and His self-radiation into space; it is presently at the point of maximum diffusion, and will soon begin to contract toward a final reassembly in—and as—God.” Moreover, the recreation or reunification of God must be imaginative. “In short,” writes Wilbur, “the duty of God’s creatures is to think God together again” [”Edgar Allan Poe,” in Major Writers of America, ed. Perry Miller (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), p. 181]. This reunification is exactly the process of “Ligeia.” The attributes of Ligeia are those of a supernatural godlike creature. The narrator cannot remember Ligeia’s surname. Neither can he find the words “to portray the majesty, the quiet ease, of her demeanor ....” Her beauty is unequalled: “an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies.” Her eyes possess “the beauty of being either above or apart from the earth.” They are “divine orbs.” The narrator comments that in “mere sounds we intrench our ignorance of so much of the spiritual.” After he has devoted himself to the “scrutiny of Ligeia’s eyes,” her beauty passes “into [his] spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine.” Further, she has “gigantic” and “astounding” knowledge in “moral, physical, and mathematical [page 20:] science.” In his recognition of her “infinite supremacy,” he decides to resign himself to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation. Her presence and readings “rendered vividly luminous the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed.” Poe, then, embodies Ligeia with qualities usually reserved to God—divine beauty and a command of all knowledge. Through their metaphysical studies, the narrator is being prepared for his “mission.” Here the Glanvill quotation is pertinent. The narrator must understand metaphysics and transcendentalism, and he must have the will to complete his mission. That he succeeds is the point of the second part of the story. During his marriage to Rowena a woman of the world who is described in general terms only he cannot forget Ligeia. At the time of Rowena’s death, memories of Ligeia flood his mind. As he concentrates, as his will becomes stronger, as he applies what he has learned, Ligeia is returned to him,. God and the universe are back together.

Walter Garrett, Elgin Community College, Illinois  

“Ligeia”: The Story as Sermon

Generically speaking, there is evidence thee Poe structured his “Ligeia” (1838) with close attention to the pattern of the sermon recommended by more than one nineteenth-century American book on homiletics. Contemporary treatises on homiletics generally called for the same structure: 1) the exordium 2) the exposition, 3) the division, 4) the discussion, 5) the conclusion. [See, for example, Ebenezer Porter’s Lectures on Homiletics and Preaching (New York, 1834). The essentials of Porter’s five-part sermon plan were still in vogue as late as Daniel P. Kidder’s A Treatise on Homiletics (New York, 1892).] ln such a sermon “formula,” Poe, I believe, found a model for the five-part structure, the rhetorical coherence, the dramatic rhythm, and the thematic focus of “Ligeia.” The story begins with an exordium in the form of a grave metaphysical pronouncement on the untold powers of the human will. Designed to secure attention, the exordium speculates on the unknowable, reaching back at the same time to assert a kind of moralistic sententiousness suitable as the basis for a sermon. Referring as it does to “God” and “the angels,” the passage is an ideal, if counterfeit, textual departure point. Poe’s exposition (a recollection of the Lady Ligeia) fulfills its structural purpose also: to enlarge, to interpret, to apply, to propose the story as a vehicle to support the truth of the text. In the fourth paragraph Poe clearly affirms his intention of using the story as an exemplum, observing thee there is “some remote connection between this passage in the English moralist [Glanvill] and a portion of the character of Ligeia.” At length, the eighth paragraph gives way to one of Poe’s microcosmic poems, a depiction in small of one important counter-theme, the tragedy of man. The five poetry stanzas constitute the story’s division, a unified disposition originally intended to further clarify, even classify the particulars of the sermonizer’s central argument. The five stanzas (which echo the five-part structure of the whole story) constitute only an analogue to the “division” step known to contemporary sermon writers. Paragraph nine introduces the discussion, intended to argue, to dispute, to provide a practical example (praxis) for the case against the Conqueror Worm as the hero of the tragedy. With Ligeia’s death and with the entrance of the Lady Rowena, the argument culminates in paragraphs nineteen and twenty where the will of the Lady Ligeia seems so to work through the body of the (now) dead Rowena, that when the “hideous drama of revivification” is enacted, Rowena’s body begins to resemble that of Ligeia’s. “Let me hurry to a conclusion,” the final sentence in paragraph twenty reads. Following the proper function of the homiletic conclusion, Poe now recapitulates his central theme: that the human will is indeed potent enough to assert itself even through the veil of death. The case for the potential of the raven black hair and the “full . . . . black . . . . wild eyes,” the corpse can only belong to Ligeia. The case for the potential of the human will having been conclusively and movingly demonstrated, the essential truth of the Glanvill text is underscored for the final time.

Kenneth T. Reed, Miami University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]