Text: Maurice J. Bennett, “ ‘The Madness of Art’: Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ as Metafiction,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:1-6


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“The Madness of Art”:
Poe’s “Ligeia” as Metafiction

University of Maryland

Metafiction is, perhaps, the contemporary narrative form par excellence. It presents the work of art in the act of self-examination and self-commentary. It is the almost inevitable outgrowth of the analogy drawn by the romantics between dreams and the processes of literary creation and their consequent interest in the analysis and dramatization of those processes. Henry James’ “The Real Thing,” for instance, meditates on the manner in which a sense of reality is created in fiction through other than purely mimetic means. John Barth in “Lost in the Funhouse” uses rhe metaphor of the funhouse to discuss the problems of writing. And Julio Cortazar’s celebrated “Blow-Up” proposes that reality itself is little more than a fiction created by each individual. Thus, the primary concerns of this genre are reflexive, and the traditional elements of fiction — narrative, character, commentary — are relevant only to the degree to which they contribute to the process of self-scrutiny.(1) As with so many of the twentieth century’s characteristic literary forms, Poe was a pioneer here, creating prototypes of the modern imagination.

As such a prototype, “Ligeia” is a metafiction not in the strict sense of an actual meditation on its process of becoming story, but in the larger sense of dramatizing the processes of aesthetic consciousness, the vagaries of inspiration as a state of mind. This conclusion results from reading the tale in terms of the general symbolic and metaphorical context of Poe’s oeuvre. Such an enterprise is encouraged by the other internationally significant American critic of the nineteenth century, Henry James, who wrote that the essential question to pose to any author’s work was, “About what, good man, does he himself most wonder? — for upon that, whatever it may be, he will naturally most abound.“(2) Although heeding this admonition may not result in a final deciphering of the figure in Poe’s carpet, it may illuminate one of the phantasmagorical forms with which he decorates his palaces of the mind.

William Carlos Williams observed that Poe’s tales continue the theories advanced in the criticism, that they characteristically turn away from the immediate scenery in order [column 2:] to reveal the “business” of composition.(3) This paper thus begins with a selective review of Poe’s criticism, for it is in his familiar conceptions of art and the artist that “Ligeia’s” metafictional concerns originate. And because Poe speaks in his own voice in these pieces, here, if anywhere, he can be taken straightforwardly.

In “Letter to B — ,” originally published as the Preface to Poems (1831), Poe introduced two propositions and a metaphor that are repeated throughout this criticism and, essentially, sum up his aesthetic attitudes. “Against the subtleties that would make poetry a study — not a passion,” he writes, “it becomes the metaphysician to reason — but the poet to protest” (Complete Works, VII, xxxviii). The focus here is upon the poet’s subjective reality: his attraction to his vocation is so intense as to warrant the adjective “passionate.” Later in the essay, Poe defines poetry as “Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea”; its immediate object is the arousal of an indefinite pleasure (xliii). These, then, are the two propositions: poetry’s proper end is pleasure, and it is inevitably allied with music as the source of an appropriately indefinite sensation. Poetry for the poet is a passion.

This metaphor essentially repeats Poe’s attack on science, that empirical vision which deprives nature of its mystery.(4) Poe identifies Coleridge and Wordsworth as the main perpetrators of what “The Poetic Principle” would label the “heresy” of the didactic, the view that poetry’s essence is moral and that it should instruct. He would later deny Coleridge the highest order of imagination, and in 1831 he singles him out for particular denunciation: “He goes wrong by reason of his very profundity, and of his error we have a natural type in the contemplation of a star. He who regards it directly and intensely sees, it is true, the star, but it is the star without a ray — while he who surveys it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below — its brilliancy and its beauty” (Complete Works, VII, xxxix). Years later, in “A Chapter of Suggestions” (1845), Poe repeated himself as he searched for an adequate image to explain the workings of the imagination: “That intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself falters and abandons the effort, appears to resemble the sudden glancing at a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct gaze” (Complete Works, XIV, 189-190). The true poet, then, is he who contemplates the star through the oblique processes of the imagination.

Following the aesthetics of the German romantics, Poe exalts music to the primary place among aesthetic forms.(5) In a passage on song writing, he claims that the soul of [page 2:] music is “a certain wild license and indefiniteness” which is the source of “sensations which bewilder while they enthrall — and which would not so enthrall did they not so bewilder.” He concludes that to endow music with excessive concreteness is to destroy its intrinsically “ethereal” and “ideal” character. “You dispel its dream-like luxury,” Poe writes, “you dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic in which its whole nature is bound up: — you exhaust it of its breath of faery” (Complete Works, X, 41-42). Music, then, is defined by its association with the indefinite, the ethereal, the mystical, fantasy, and the capacity to induce states of hypnotic indolence, its tendency to “enthrall.”

Poe’s review of the poetry of Rodman Drake and Fitz-Greene Halleck (1836) makes it clear that he uses music as a metonymic replacement for “poetry.” He distinguishes between poetry as an ideal form incapable of being “bound down within the widest horizon of mere sounds” and the poetic sentiment that is aroused in the contemplator of this Platonic form (Complete Works, VIII, 281). The poem “is not the Poetic faculty, but the means of exciting it in mankind” (284), and his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales claims, finally, “A poem must intensely excite. Excitement is its province, its essentiality. Its value is in ratio to its (elevating) excitement” (Complete Works, XIII, 151) .

The prerequisite for a susceptibility to arousal, however, is the “Faculty of Ideality,” which Poe defines as “the sense of the beautiful, of the sublime, and of the mystical,” and he offers the epigrammatic assertion that “Poesy is the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher Intellectual happiness hereafter” (Complete Works, VIII, 282, 283). The poet is not only smitten by the very qualities Poe ascribed to music but also characterized by his capacity for unusual mental pleasures and the desire for more such enjoyments in another life. Finally the Drake-Halleck review asserts Poe’s union of beauty and melancholy (here, “beauty heightened in dissolution”) that would become programmatic in “The Philosophy of Composition.”

Most relevant ro the present reading of “Ligeia” is Poe’s definitive aesthetic statement, “The Poetic Principle” (1850). Because this essay clarifies and polishes many of the ideas noted above, the immediate interest here is Poe’s identification of the poetic principle with a whole complex of human desires and frustrations and the possibility of the ir fulfillment. He claims that man possesses a longing for the beautiful that transcends the delight in mere visual or tactile stimulus:

This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone (Complete Works, XIV, 273).

The tears evoked by “the most entrancing of Poetic moods,” music, are evidence of man’s “petulant, impatient sorrow” at his inability to seize immediately “those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the [column 2:] music, we attain to buc brief and indeterminate glimpses” (Complete Works, XIV, 274).

Although the tone and vocabulary of such passages suggest Poe’s impersonation of one of his characters (the narrator of “Ligeia,” for instance ), the complaint voiced is repeated too often not to indicate his sincerity. The discussions of beauty, poetry, and music can be seen as elaborate attempts to express a profound sense of metaphysical deprivation and isolation — a characteristically romantic position that had received its classic articulation in Werther’s tears and suicide.(6)

Poe finally defines the poetic principle as “the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty” and identifies it, again, with an “elevating excitement of the Soul.” He continues to dissociate this metaphysical excitement from “that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart,” and he concludes: “Love, on the contrary — Love — the true, the divine Eros — the Uranian, as distinguished from the Dionaean Venus — is unquestionably the purest and truest of all

poetical themes” ( Complete Works, XIV, 290) . Somewhat obscured, Poe’s astral metaphor for poetic vision reappears: Uranian Venus is also the morning and evening stars. The penultimate paragraph of the essay is a peroration on the universal sensitivity of the poet, who, exiled from the attainment of the ideal, finds himself perforce excited by nearly all simple things. The catalogue of those simplicities — stars, rivers, “sequestered” lakes, unexplored islands and oceans, and the melodious voice, lustrous eyes, and love of a beautiful woman — offers a table of those subjects, images, and metaphors that form the texture of Poe’s art.

Poe’s aesthetic meditations can be divided, then, into their objective and subjective aspects. Objectively, poetry is a Platonic ideal beyond the reach of mortals. This inaccessibility is expressed in the figure of the star, which, as Venus, is also woman. To contemplate this star is to arouse those vague and inexpressible longings that most resemble the reaction to music. Considered as a syllogism, music, the star, and a beautiful woman become nearly equivalent metaphors. Unable to define the inexpressible, Poe becomes subjective, and he redefines poetry as effect, as that which most intensely arouses man’s meraphysical aspirations. Of course, the being most susceptible to this stimulation is the poet, a creature in whom the faculty of ideality is unusually developed and who universally responds to the solicitations of the sublime, the beautiful, and the mystical. The true poet, the n, becomes metaphorically the impassioned star-gazer, the mortal lover of the Uranian Venus, condemned by reason of his human frailty never ro achieve his lady. Finally, Poe makes the love of a beautiful dying woman his metaphor for the eternally unfilled desire of the poetic sensibility.

As metafiction, “Ligeia” rehearses many of the propositions noted above; as a tale, its method of statement must be the oblique process of metaphor upon which literature depends. One can expect, then, the recurrence of those images and meraphors identified as an integral aspect of Poe’s serious aesthetic discussions. The reader is confronted first with the epigraph attributed to Joseph Glanvill, which asserts that “God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness.’ (Works. II, 305). This can be [page 3:] eludes: “Love. on the contrary — Love

accepted as received theology, but the subsequent sentence, “Man cloth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will,” points to the covert comparison between man and God. The reference to angels is also suggestive, for, as critics have frequently noted, Poe associates aesthetic activity with divinity.(7) Poe himself sees the universe as God’s perfect “plot” (“The American Drama,” Complete Works, XIII, 46); thus, the human creator of plots, however imperfect his work may be, necessarily possesses divine attributes.

Poe’s metaphysical tales, “The Power of Words,” “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” and “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” suggest that the epigraph does not indicate literal, physical resurrections. In these works, the spirit is liberated from its human dross into those “beauties beyond the grave” for which music and the poetic principle make man weep. Aidenn is Poe’s world of supernal beauty and reborn spirits, and it exists solely “to afford infinite springs, at which the soul may allay the thirst to know which is for ever unquenchable within it” (Works, III, 1212). Of all humans, the poet alone possesses the intense desire and the intellectual power that can achieve the kind of victory that Poe dramatizes in these tales, and to which he alludes by means of the Glanvill quotation. As with all else in Poe, the epigraph must be read obliquely, it exists as a kind of metaphor for that triumph over death which, for Poe, is an escape into the ideal world of poetry. It is the first indication that Poe is concerned here with the realm of man’s proper angelic efficacy, the domain of art.

For the narrator, Ligeia is a brilliant and beautiful woman who dies and returns from the grave, and whom he adores. But it is Poe who kills and resurrects her and who creates those attributes in which the narrator marvels. Ligeia’s significance, then, does not lie in her husband’s “heated fancy” but in the preoccupations of her creator. She appears earlier in Poe’s youthful poem, “Al Aaraaf,” as the goddess of harmony. Nesace, the ruler of Poe’s aesthetic star, apostrophizes her as a being “Whose harshest idea / Will to melody run” and asserts that she and music are inseparable (Works, I, 109-110).

Music’s association with the star of supernal beauty has been noted as essential to Poe’s ideas concerning art. Further, the name Ligeia belonged to one of the sirens who sang to Odysseus. In classical mythology, the sirens were given not only the seductions of melody, but also an eternal and transcendent wisdom.(8) Thus, Odysseus was allured by both song and knowledge; and Poe’s habitual considerations — the linked recurrence of beauty, music, knowledge, and their existence in a world apart from the human — reappear once more.

That the tale’s Ligeia is fundamentally the same creature as surfaced in the poem as well as a possible reworking of the classical figure is indicated by the attributes that Poe awards her and that he creates the narrator to describe. She speaks in a “low musical language” and even arouses those reactions that Poe explicitly attributes to music and to the poetic principle: her beauty “was the radiance of an opium-dream — an airy spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the phantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos” (Works, II, 311). She possesses the requisite “lofty and pale forehead” of [column 2:] ideality, and the narrator perceives in her very chin the “fullness and the spirituality . . . which the God Apollo revealed but in a dream, to Cleomenes, the son of the Athenian” (Works, II, 312).

Ligeia’s eyes are what really enthrall the narrator, however. It is not their color but their “expression” that fascinates him, and he follows this admission with the ejaculation: “Ah, word of no meaning! behind whose vast latitude of mere sound we intrench our ignorance of so much of the spiritual” (Works, II, 313). He further admits to devoting an entire midsummer night to deciphering that expression whose meaning he has a “passion” to discover; and he concludes: “Those eyes! Those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers” (Works, II, 313).

Throughout this lengthy quotation, the descriptions of Ligeia and her effect on her lover repeat those images and associations with which Poe elsewhere surrounded his serious discussions of poetry. She is spiritual, ideal, and musical; she is associated with the muses and with the god of poetry himself, Apollo. Her beauty appears to the narrator as an opium dream whose radiance is “spirit-lifting“ — that the same intense, soul-elevating excitement Poe made the determining value of the poem. Like “poesy,” the expression of her eyes escapes language. And, finally, those eyes appear to the narrator as stars, figuring to him an inaccessible yet infinitely desirable knowledge. He presents himself as their astrologer, that passionate star-gazer who is Poe’s consistent metaphor for the poer. Thus, whether Ligeia is read as a legitimare character dramatically participant in the rale or as a projection of the narrator’s imagination, the metaphors, images, and associations that surround her and that concretize her for both the reader and the narrator also link her indivisibly with Poe’s conception of poetry.

With his wife as a fictionalization of the spirit of poetry, the narrator, who has spent countless hours in passionate and rapt contemplation of her eyes, becomes the poet — the star-gazer. He thus re-expresses a tradition of English amatory verse one of whose finest examples is Sir Philip Sidney’s sixteenth-century sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, in which the courtier-lover-poet and his lady are presenred in precisely the relationship that Poe rediscovers. The narrator’s madness should nor be read, then, as the literal derangement for which nearly all the tale’s commentators have taken it.9 Poetic utterance, that speech from which lirerature derives, has been traditionally associated with ecstatic or rhapsodic states, artificially or self-induced, in which the daily consciousness has been turned from its normal channels and made the conduit for seemingly irrational or suprarational forces. Poetry requires the divine afflatus; what later becomes the conventional invocation of the muses was once the sincere appeal for momentary spiritual possession, a temporary madness. The romantics revive the old associations between dream, inspiration, imagination, and madness. To be sane is ro be no poet, to be mad is to speak, perchance, with the divine voice.l°

Poe certainly did not escape the aesthetic and epistemological concerns of his era. He is fascinated with the irrational aspects of man’s behavior and considers the oblique, the indefinite, and states of intense excitement as [page 4:] prerequisites for entering the kingdom of poetry. Thus, readers should be on the alert when such a character as the narrator of “Eleonora” declares that it is an open question as to whether “madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence — whether much that is glorious — whether all that is profound — does not spring from disease of thought — from moods of mind exalted at the expense of general intellect” (Works, III, 236).

Insanity, in Poe, is both a romantic literary convention and a metaphor that he finds compellingly attractive. He uses nearly identical language to describe the imagination, writing in “A Chapter of Suggestions” that it brought man “ro a glimpse of things supernal and eternal — to the very verge of great secrets.” He concludes that “Some of the most profound knowledge — perhaps all very profound knowledge — has originated from a highly stimulated imagination” (Complete Works, XIV, 187). Viewed in these terms, the madness of Ligeia’s lover transcends common neurosis to become one of those exalted intensifications of consciousness that have been traditionally granted the poet. Significantly, the vigil during which he gazes after the secret in Ligeia’s eyes takes place on a “midsummer night,” evenings traditionally consecrated to the vagaries of fools, madmen, and poets.

The narrator’s marriage to Ligeia thus becomes the true poet’s ineluctable commitment to aesthetic perception. The union occurs in the country that had become synonymous with romantic art, Germany, and it is presided over by the spirit of “Romance.” In a poem with this same title, Poe had ascribed his own early felicity to the same deity. As a “painted paroquet,” Romance was the source of his entire perceptual reality, having taught him his alphabet ( Works, I, 128).

It is generally a mistake to dismiss the possibility of a coverr and distorting sexual level in Poe’s tales, and some readers have found it a major element in ‘‘Ligeia.‘‘(11) But the tale does not quite present the world of “Berenice,” in which there are obvious psycho-emotional displacements. Instead, it has a consistent and controlled emphasis on the inrellectuality of the central relationship. The narrator finds mental excitement in Ligeia’s presence; she is the muse of his esoteric researches; and he is attracted to her precisely because she unites wirh her beauty and enthralling music that knowledge “too divinely precious not to be forbidden” ( Works, II, 316). True to both their Poesque natures, she induces in him “the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of Intellectual Happiness hereafter.” Poe prefigures here his description in “The Poetic Principle” of the poet’s faith as love for the Uranian Venus, the “true, the divine Eros” and “the purest and truest of all poetical themes.” He dramatizes such a theme in “Ligeia,” which presents a type of the existence of the lover of the beautiful.

“The Poetic Principle” advances that the true poet, denied his astral love, is forced to compensate through a universal sensitivity to the things of this sublunar world as analogues for the unachievable. The narrator of “Ligeia,” similarly denied the knowledge residing in his wife’s eyes to which he aspires, is driven to just such a universal sentience:

I found, in the commonest objects of the universe, a circle of [column 2:] analogies to that expression. I mean to say that, subsequently eo the period when Ligeia’s beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine, I derived, from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I felt always aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs. (Works, 11, 314)

There follows a catalogue that is essentially identical with the penultimate paragraph of “The Poetic Principle,” in which Poe lists the poet’s sensitivities.

Finally, the poet-narrator addresses what Poe advanced as the two most “poetic” themes. Love for the celestial Venus is one, and the narrator’s adoration of Ligeia is its incarnation. There is also Poe’s famous restriction of poetry’s great subject to the death of a beautiful woman. Although Ligeia rises again, “beauty in dissolution” is an integral part of the tale — particularly with Rowena’s protracted wasting away. The basic difference between Ligeia and Ulalume, Annabel Lee, and Lenore is that she is recoverable. Like the Psyche of “To Helen,” she returns from “holy” regions, for Poe was not yet dominated by that sense of permanent loss of which his refrain “nevermore” has become the identifying articulation.

It is generally recognized that Poe’s tales dramatize subjective realities; frequently, they are visions of the psyche in dialogue or conflict with itself. External trappings, whenever they exist, are seldom to be taken as literal fixtures only, but also as symbols of important psychic data. Richard Wilbur, for instance, has written convincingly of the function of architecture in Poe as a metaphor for the mind and of interior decorations as indications of types of consciousness.(12) Thus, the two rooms in which the tale takes place — the narrator’s study on the Rhine and the tower chamber of his English abbey — may be read as symbolic expressions of the artist’s consciousness.

Herself the dramatic representation of the poetic principle, Ligeia’s musical entrances into the narrator’s study become the comings and goings of poetic inspiration, those intense but short-lived moments when artists feel themselves at the peak of their creative capacity. The narrator himself offers the basic paradigm for interpreting her behavior when he claims that, “frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligeia’s eyes, have I felt approaching the full knowledge of their expression — felt it approaching — yet not quite be mine — and so at length entirely depart!” (Works, II, 314). Here is the tale’s basic pattern of flux and reflux. The knowledge he seeks tantalizingly appears, disappears, reappears, only to disappear again, and Ligeia enters and exits from his chamber, just as, at last, she enters and exits from his life. The desired object is never entirely possessed, as even the marriage emphasizes only the tenuity of human happiness.

The larger narrative movement is repeated in successively abbreviated forms until it is encapsulated in the passage on knowledge noted above. Ligeia’s death becomes the inevitable fading of the dream on waking, the necessary relapse from states of exalted consciousness into the commonplace. Ir is not surprising that with Ligeia gone the narrator can no longer decipher those texts that only her gaze could illuminate. Deserted by inspiration, the poet, who once could read the meanings of things, whose synaesthetic consciousness opened for him divine mysteries, now views all things as singularly flat and unprofitable.

In this mood of “mental alienation,” the narrator marries [page 5:] the blond Rowena. That she represents Ligeia’s exact opposite has been substantially agreed upon by the tale’s commentators. In a symbolic drama in which the narrator is a poet and Ligeia is the spirit of poetry, Rowena of necessity becomes the antithesis of that ecstatic state in which the poet feels himself wedded to his muse. The two marriages, then, are emblematic — as an artist, the poet inhabits the realm of the imagination, but as a man, he is also united to everyday reality. Poe’s contemporaries often conceived of the two states as incompatible. They could only be experienced successively, so that a classic romantic lament was man’s inability to sustain flights of the imagination.(13) The narrator’s loathing for Rowena is a complaint against mere humanity; his nostalgia for Ligeia is “the desire of the moth for the star.”

In Ligeia’s absence, the narrator resorts to artificial stimulation, to opium, in order to induce that elevated consciousness he once possessed. On another occasion Poe would write that genius lived, mentally, “too fast,” so that it developed “The earnest longing for artificial excitement’ which was a “psychal want, or necessity — an effort to regain the lost, — a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances would have been its due” (Complete Works, XIV, 190). Earlier in the tale, Ligeia’s beauty itself had appeared to the narrator as “the radiance of an opium dream.” Thus, his drug use is more than a case of ordinary addiction; it is another expression, another symbol, of his commitment to the kind of consciousness Ligeia represents and of his concerted attempt to regain it once it has deserted him.(14)

At this point, whether the narrator, Ligeia, or both drop the ruby poison into Rowena’s goblet is unimportant. The exoticism of the chamber in which Rowena is imprisoned indicates the rich imaginativeness of the poet’s consciousness. It is this imaginativeness and his intense devotion to supernal beauty that doom any union with merely conventional reality. Rowena must sicken and die because imagination is noxious to the ordinary. What kills her is the poet’s refusal to relinquish habits of mind with which she cannot possibly coexist. With the true poet, imagination and inspiration necessarily “poison” and obliterate their opposites.

Alan Golding has noted the manner in which Enreka rephrases the language of rational discourse in an attempt to suggest the sublime mysteries it addresses. For instance the logical term “inference” becomes “vision,” or “idea” becomes ‘‘phantom.‘‘ls This latter language forms the very texture of “Ligeia.” On one occasion, the narrator recalls that his wife “came and departed as a shadow,” and his sense of synaesthetic stimulation does not result so much from her mere physical presence as from the vague abstraction of her “beauty” entering and dwelling within him “as in a shrine” (Works, II, 311, 314). The relationship that Golding posits between Eureka’s “restrictive” language that defines and its “expansive” language that opens into vision is analogous to the relationship posited here between Poe’s criticism and “Ligeia.” In the tale, Poe dramatizes mental processes he elsewhere describes, states in which ideas and perceptions are in constant flux. The narrator’s much-noted failure to provide Ligeia with a social context, his inability to recall biographical detail, is explained by observing [column 2:] that, properly speaking, there is none. On one level, the successive marriages and Ligeia’s final victory dramatize the manner in which mental processes flow into and transform one another.

The narrator’s frantic behavior, however, suggests an obsessive attempt to recapture a lost or forgotten intuition. It is analogous to his passionate desire to attain the knowledge lurking in Ligeia’s eyes. Viewed in these terms, the conclusion presents a triumphant wish-fulfillment shared, perhaps, by all practicing artists at some moment in their careers. It offers that supreme instant in which the imagination negates dull reality by transforming it. It renders the artist’s willful triumph over those periods of imaginative torpor during which he feels exiled from his creative self, when, despite all his efforts, the page remains blank or what he does achieve lacks the spark he once possessed.

As others have noted, there is a collapse of the ego here.(16) But it is a distorting anachronism to read these events in terms of twentieth-century psychological theories or to view them as prefigurations of contemporary dilemmas. For Poe and the romantics in general, such a disintegration is an alluring temptation — the moment when the soul supported by the imagination in its flight toward more perfect worlds, jettisons the conventional self that tied it to an existence delimited by pain and death. It is the kind of death of the old self of which the Christian baptism is the type, and of which Poe offers his own version in such pieces as “The Colloquy of Monos and Una.”

“Ligeia’s” modernity lies less in its narrator’s psychology than in the authorial self-consciousness Poe exhibited in the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque ( 1840), in which “Ligeia” appeared. “These brief compositions,” he writes, “are, in chief part, the results of matured purpose and very careful elaboration.‘‘(17) The philosophic and aesthetic discourse that is the primary concern of the criticism reappears, in nearly identical terms, in “Ligeia,” but narrative form turns the treatise into a tale. George Bernard Shaw claimed that Poe’s poems always have the universe as their background.(18) The same may be said for such tales as “Ligeia,” which, however compelling as fiction, originate in and comment upon Poe’s central preoccupations. In this instance, aesthetics and metaphysics successfully unite.(19)



1 - Almost all literature, no matter how primitive, inevitably confronts, no matter how briefly, the problems of creating a fictive world at obvious variance with the immediate and the real. The romantic and post-romantic periods, however, have been marked by a preoccupation with the processes of the isolated consciousness, whatever form they might take. It is hardly surprising that the extremely reflexive work of Paul Valery takes a grateful cue from Poe, or that the pre-eminent practitioner of metafiction, the Argentine Jorge Luis gorges, also repeatedly alludes to his debt to Poe. See, particularly, gorges’ The Book of Sand, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), pp. 7-8.

2 - James, The Art of the Novel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), pp. 253-254.

3 - Williams, “Edgar Allan Poe,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966), p. 139.

4 - Poe addressed this issue directly in his “Sonnet — To Science.”

5 - M. H. Abrams discusses the German aestheticians’ preference for an expressive, heterocosmic conception of art in his The Mirror [page 6:] and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 88-94, 272.

6 - Richard Kuhns, in Structures of Experience: Essays on the Affinity between Philosophy and Literature (New York: Basic Books, 1970), pp. 68-73, asserts that Werther’s sexual attraction for Charlotte expresses his metaphysical aspiration to a reality from which he feels hopelessly separated.

7 - See Allen Tate, “The Angelic Imagination,” and Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. 236-254, 256-258.

8 - For an extended discussion of the classical analogy, see Joy Rea, “Classicism and Romanticism in Poe’s ‘Ligeia,‘” Ball State University Forum, 8 (1967), 25-27.

9 - Even Donald B. Stauffer’s excellent defense of the tale on the basis of its subtle prosodic variations assumes that the highly rhythmic, incantatory passages in which the narrator first recalls his former happiness and then records his final experience are evidence of neurosis. See his “Style and Meaning in ‘Ligeia’ and ‘William Wilson,‘” Studies in Short Fiction, 2 (1965), 318-322.

10 - In The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams notes the early nineteenth-century attack on poetry as an attack on its irrationality. In particular he remarks Macaulay’s dismissal of poetic truth as the “truth of madness” (p. 306)

11 - These readers generally owe a debt to the psychoanalytic approach of Marie Bonaparte. Roy R. Basler sees the story as the result of “frustrated” eroticism, and he is followed by Joel Porte, who reads Ligeia as “the Lilith of every Adam’s most febrile dreams.‘’ But Baudelaire early noted “Ligeia’s” distance from sexual preoccupations. See Basler, “The Interpretation of ‘Ligeia,‘‘’ College English, 5 (1944), 367; Porte, The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 69-76; Charles Baudelaire, “Edgar Poe, Sa Vie et Ses Oeuvres,” in L‘Art Romantique (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1968), p. 166.

12 - In Recognition, pp. 259-277.

13 - One of the more eloquent protests against man’s frailties is voiced by the protagonist of Byron’s Manfred (1, ii, 31-57), who at one point defines man as “Half dust, half deity, alike unfit / To sink or soar. . . .‘’

14 - For a general study of the role played by opium in the romantics’ aesthetic and epistemological concerns, with a separate chapter on Poe, see Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), pp. 132151.

15 - Alan C. Golding, “Reductive and Expansive Language: Semantic Strategies in Eureka,‘’ Poe Stadies, 11 (1978), 1-5.

16 - Many critics have followed D. H. Lawrence’s original claim that Ligeia’s reappearance was both the result and the cause of the narrator’s “disintegration.” See, for instance, James W. Gargano, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia,’ Dream and Destruction,” College English, 23 (1962), 341.

17 Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1840), p. 6.

18 - George Bernard Shaw, “Edgar Allan Poe,” in Recognition, p. 99.

19 - For informative studies on the relation between Poe’s metaphysics and the formal structures of his fiction, see Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA 83 (1968), 284-297, and David Ketterer, “Edgar Allan Poe and the Visionary Tradition of Science Fiction,” New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature ( Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974), pp. 50-75. Other studies pertinent to the present reading include Richard P. Benton, “Platonic Imagery in Poe’s ‘Eleonora,‘” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 22 (1967), 293-297; Eric W. Carlson, “Poe’s Vision of Man,” Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Ohio: Chantry Music Press, 1972), pp. 7-20; Paul John Eakin, “Poe’s Sense of an Ending,” American Literature, 45 (1973), 1-22; Joseph Garrison, Jr., ‘‘The Irony of ‘Ligeia,‘” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 40 (Fall 1970), 13-18, and E. Arthur Robinson, “Cosmic Vision in Poe’s ‘Eleonora,‘” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 44-46.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]