9 Poe’s feminine ideal KAREN WEEKES Poe’s vision of the feminine ideal appears throughout his work, in his poetry and short stories, and his critical essays, most notably “The Philosophy of Composition. ” Especially in his poetry, he idealizes the vulnerability of woman, a portrayal that extends into his fiction in stories such as “Eleonora” and “The Fall of the House of Usher. In these tales, and even moreso in “Morella” and “Ligeia, ” the heroines’ unexpected capacities for life beyond the grave indicate that females may have more strength and initiative than the delicate models of his verse. The most significant trait of his ideal, however, is her role as emotional catalyst for her partner. The romanticized woman is much more significant in her impact on Poe’s narrators than in her own right.
The concept of using females merely as a means to a (male) end appears explicitly in “The Philosophy of Composition, ” wherein Poe also supplies his philosophy of beauty: “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect ??? they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul ??? not of intellect, or of heart ??? upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful'” (E&R, 16).
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Thus the value of what is viewed lies solely in the response induced in the observer, and the subject takes complete precedence over its object. Scenic images in Poe’s work fall more into the realm of the sublime than the beautiful, so instead, the inspiration for the experience of Beauty in all its melancholy extremity is “the death… of a beautiful woman” and, appropriately, “equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover” (E, 19). The woman must die in order to enlarge the experience of the narrator, her viewer.
Poe indulged his “most poetical topic in the world” by repeating this idea obsessively: poems on the subject include “Lenore, ” “To One in Paradise, ” “Sonnet ??? To Zante, ” “The Raven, ” “‘Deep in Earth,'” “Ulalume, ” and “Annabel Lee”; tales include “Eleonora, ” “Ligeia, ” “The Oval Portrait, ” “Berenice, ” “Morella, ” “The Fall of the House of Usher, ” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, ” “The Mystery of Marie Roget, ” “The Assignation, ” “The Oblong Box, ” and “The Premature Burial. ” Floyd Stovall comments that Poe’s poetic heory “has been partly substantiated by the excellence of these productions, most of which are among the best things that he did. There is in them, however, much repetition… and in spite of the poet’s excellent art the theme grows monotonous. ” 1 Critics have used biographical and psychological arguments to explain this preoccupation of Poe’s. Doubtless, Poe lost an unusual number of beautiful, relatively young, nurturing females in his lifetime: his mother, Eliza Poe; his foster mother, Fanny Allan; the mother of one of his friends, Jane Stanard; and his own wife, Virginia Clemm.
Poe witnessed his mother’s death before he turned three, and this traumatic event caused him not only to seek desperately for replacement caregivers but to re-enact this bereavement in his poetry and prose. Kenneth Silverman believes that in his tales Poe “nourished himself on a young woman’s death, in the sense that art was for him a form of mourning, a revisitation of his past and of what he had lost, as if trying to make them right. Since nothing could, he returned to the subject of ‘the one and only supremely beloved’ again and again. 2 All three of these key biographical figures show signs of consumption, a disease that kills its victims without destroying their appearance. In fact, often the consumptive woman ironically becomes increasingly beautiful as her skin pales to translucence and her cheeks and lips redden from fever. Washington Irving depicted the demise of a young girl whom he observed in the throes of consumption as exemplifying “a kind of death that seemed devoid of pain, deformity, filth, or horror. Examining Poe’s depictions of death, Gerald Kennedy comments: Poe implies that through this insidious transformation, temporal loveliness approaches the perfection of eternal beauty, and theoretically at least the corpse of the dead woman briefly incarnates an ideality. But because death also entails physiological decay, the beauty of the just-departed contains an element of terror, since the passage of time implies a subsequent and inevitable mutation to loathsomeness….
The dying woman became a sign of her own fate, and her dissolution presented a spectacle at once irresistible and unbearable. 3 One is immediately reminded of the scene from “Ligeia” in which the body of Rowena revivifies and then collapses back into death, each cycle falling farther into decay. The vacillation between flushed, warm cheeks and the shrunken-lipped, clammy corpse is horrific because of the stark contrast between these states. The repugnant aspects of death usually appen beyond the narrator’s ken; his poetic ladies are already entombed, and he is informed of, rather than called to witness, the non-consumptive “deaths” of the wasting Madeline Usher and Berenice, whose emaciated body, “hollow temples, ” and “thin and shrunken lips” revolt the narrator almost as much as her teeth do (P&T, 230). In other cases where the female falls ill without lessening her beauty (“Morella, ” “Ligeia, ” “Eleonora”), he is at the bedside of his wife for her last breath.
Serving chiefly as inspiration for the narrator’s melancholy experience of “Beauty” in the loss of this increasingly attractive figure, Poe’s poetic and fictional females lack individual development. The dying woman passes silently from this life, rarely expressing her feelings on the matter. Madeline Usher is speechless in her only pre-entombed appearance; Berenice smiled her ghastly grin but “spoke no word” (P&T, 230), and the wife in “The Oval Portrait” disturbs her husband’s labor not at all but instead quietly dies in her chair as he paints.
In other cases, such as those of Ligeia, Morella, and Eleonora, their dying thoughts focus not on their own plight but on that of the narrator. In Poe’s fictional and poetic world, the suffering and death of the beloved figure repeatedly pales into insignificance beside the self-absorption of her survivor. Poe’s female characters thus become a receptacle for their narrator’s angst and guilt, a tabula rasa on which the lover inscribes his own needs. His fictional “ideal” is a woman who can be subsumed into another’s ego and who has no need to tell her own tale; she is killed off so quickly that her silence is inscribed quite irrevocably.
Instead her image functions merely as a mirror that reflects man at twice his size, as Virginia Woolf has described. 4 I join other critics in arguing that Poe never truly wrote about women at all, writing instead about a female object and ignoring dimensions of character that add depth or believability to these repeated stereotypes of the beautiful damsel. Nina Baym asserts that there “are neither portrayals of women, nor attitudes toward them, in Poe’s fiction and biography, ” since he uses females to stand for ideas that can almost be construed as morals of his tales. On the other hand, Joseph Moldenhauer points out that Poe’s women, although admittedly representing ideals, are disturbingly “wishe[d] into death” in order for Poe to fulfill his art, thus making him “symbolically, a killer of beautiful women. ” 6 It is hard to determine which repeated treatment of women is more demeaning: to see them as creatures in their own right, but ones who must die in order to serve a larger, androcentric purpose, or to utilize them as lifeless pasteboard props for the purposes of the narrator’s emotional excesses.
Poe’s feminine ideal thus is merely a placeholder, the less obtrusive the better, for some need in the narrator himself. As Joan Dayan remarks Poe’s tales about women “are about the men who narrate the unspeakable remembrance. ” 7 Just as Poe’s female characters have similarities in demeanor, his narrators peculiarly resemble each other as well. These bereaved men wax eloquent on the subject of the beauty of their spouses, but even in the cataloguing of features, Poe uses “attributes repeated and recycled no matter for whom or when he wrote, [and] the writer himself seems to be most ‘heartfelt’ when most vague.
Poe’s narrators… become as vain, abstract, and diseased as their objects of desire. ” 8 This vagueness is evident when they attempt to describe the nature of the disease that fells these women. When Berenice is stricken, the narrator reports that “a fatal disease ??? fell like the simoom upon her frame, and, even while I gazed upon her, the spirit of change swept over her, pervading her mind, her habits, and her character, and, in a manner the most subtle and terrible, disturbing even the identity of her person! (P, 226). How she is changed is never delineated; we are only persuaded that the narrator believes it is for the worse. These males also have surprising lapses about quite significant points; Ligeia’s husband not only does not remember her last name, he asserts that he may never have known it, a quite surprising admission from someone whose vast wealth derives from inheriting her presumably paternal riches. They marry for unknown reasons at questionable times: Berenice is betrothed only after she is fatally ill, and Morella and her husband are bound by “fate” despite the narrator’s lack of love or passion for her. The narrators are obviously repelled by visible signs of their partner’s illness (“Berenice, ” “Morella”) and seem curiously removed from physical passion or any vestige of empathy for their wives.
When they are overcome with emotion, they become corpselike: as the narrator reads the words of Ebn Zaiat in “Berenice, ” the blood congeals in his veins. Upon the revivification of Rowena, the narrator’s heart ceases beating and his limbs grow rigid; the ultimate sight of Ligeia’s face renders him cold as stone. 10 The vision of Madeline Usher sends that story’s narrator into a stupor. Mary Oliver conflates these figures into “a single sensibility, as one character, ” and sees this persona as “other than rational.
He is a man of nervous temperament; he is capable of great love, loyalty, grief, of ‘wild excitement’ (a recurring phrase); he owns a strange and unfettered imagination…. The question of madness is always present. The actions of the narrator are often clearly, recognizably insane…. Illness, as well, is a presence, an excuse. ” 11 Opium use is another rationale for the narrator’s incredible behavior. Oliver’s designation of these characters as mad would certainly be a logical conclusion based on their actions as well as their “wild words. Their odd betrothals or marriages (to cousins, in two cases) are the least of their strange indulgences, as one later violates his fiancee’s grave to extract her teeth and take them to his library, one builds a bedroom filled with sarcophagi and literally frightens his bride to death, one does not name his daughter until she is ten years old (and then gives her the name of the deceased mother whom he abhorred and of whom he has never spoken to the child), and one helps his emotionally deranged friend entomb a living woman.
These bizarre behaviors do not generally appear in poems, although the husband who nightly sleeps with Annabel Lee in her tomb and the mysterious visit to Ulalume’s grave are consistent with the macabre activities of the prose narrators. But the melancholy narrator in “The Raven” is “ponder[ing], weak and weary” at the point of his visitation, and this passive state of bereaved grief is more typical of the poetry than the tales. “Annabel Lee” exemplifies several traits of Poe’s feminine ideal, especially that of being wholly subsumed by the male.
Her unnaturally young age for marriage (she and the narrator are each described as “a child”) is, of course, evocative of Poe’s own child-bride, his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia. The youth of several of the poetic figures, including “Annabel Lee, ” “Lenore, ” “Ulalume, ” and “Eulalie, ” is specifically remarked. A young “maiden” would be more easily dominated than the philosophical Morella or learned Ligeia, and the narrator appreciates the fact that Annabel Lee “lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me” (P&T, 102).
She is also victim of one of those swift illnesses that so beset Poe’s women; he appears to be spared the decay of his beloved, as she is whisked away by her kinsmen and buried safely out of sight. “Lenore” is one of the many poems that celebrate the fairness of the beloved, in hair, skin, or eyes. When the poetic women are described, they are often fair, with “hyacinth” or yellow hair (“Eulalie, ” “To Helen”) and light eyes; they are never described as having the black hair and eyes of the “Dark Ladies” of Poe’s tales.
The bride “Eulalie” has violet eyes, and “To One in Paradise” is an elegaic for a grey-eyed beloved. Poe’s feminine ideal also appears in several of his biographically-based poems, such as “For Annie, ” “To Helen [#2], ” and “To F???s S. O???d. ” The subjects of these poems have basis in Poe’s own romantic quests, as “Annie” is actually Nancy Richmond; this “Helen” is his future fiancee Sarah Helen Whitman rather than the Jane Stanard of his youth, and “F???s S. O???d” is poet Frances Sargent Osgood.
Although these mature females have lives and accomplishments of their own, they are lauded for the same doting, feminine qualities that imbue his imagined poetic females. Instead of praising Osgood’s poetic skill or intelligence, for example, he casts her in the stereotypical female mold, extolling her “gentle ways, ” “grace, ” and “more than beauty” that, according to the poem, will be her means of ensuring the world’s “love” (P&T, 73). “For Annie” ennobles the same stereotypical traits; he lauds her “truth” equally with her “beauty, ” but it is her nurturing capacity that seems most impressive. She tenderly kissed me, / She fondly caressed, / And then I fell gently / To sleep on her breast, ” is as much a maternal image as a romantic one and becomes even more motherly as Annie tucks him into bed and says a prayer “to the angels / to keep [him] from harm” (P, 100). This conflation of the maternal with the romantic appears more insidiously in tales such as “Morella” and “Ligeia, ” in which the husband’s status is explicitly stated as child-like compared to the erudition of his spouse and in which both these learned women mysteriously die.
In both verse and fiction Poe emphasizes his heroines’ eyes. Annabel Lee, Annie, Eulalie, the beloved in “To???, ” Isabel (“Fairy Land”); and the bride in “Song” are all described as having glowing or bright eyes, often likened to stars. But most extreme in Poe’s paeans to lovers’ eyes occurs in “To Helen [#2], ” in which the lover disappears except for her eyes: Only thine eyes remained. They would not go ??? they never yet have gone, Lighting my lonely pathway home that night, They have not left me ??? they lead me through the years.
Helen’s eyes fill the poet’s soul with Beauty and Hope, and at last are recognized as not only brighter than stars but even outshining daylight: “I see them still ??? two sweetly scintillant / Venuses, unextinguished by the sun! ” (P, 96???97). The “light” that shines in these myriad eyes is synonymous with these capitalized traits, Beauty and Hope. Remember that Beauty, in Poe’s cosmology, is the experience in the breast of the perceiver of the beautiful object, not the object itself.
These usually passive, vulnerable, even dead, women are ripe for this objectification, the epitome of which is to fragment the female into parts and idealize or fetishize one aspect of her body, such as her eyes or teeth. As for “Hope, ” I would argue that this trait is linked to the youth of his females; there is Hope not only for a long and fruitful life for the beloved as she is seen in her innocent young state, but for the narrator as he views his own prospects in this reflective surface.
Kennedy draws on the work of Ernest Becker in his argument about “the idealizing of the Other, ” in which “the wife (for example) is expected to assure the happiness of the husband and by maintaining her own youthfulness and vitality to affirm his youth ??? that is, to save him from aging and death. The discovery of her vulnerability seems to deprive him of the illusion of his own immortality. ” 12 The poet can either depict the Hopefulness of healthy youth, in all its resonance of immortality, or the Beauty of the death of a beautiful woman.
However, if a young woman dies, he can do both, her death ultimately foiling Hope and so becoming even more poignant for the narrator. Thus a dying woman who remains beautiful is to be adored as a poetic inspiration, but one who has the poor grace to show the ravages of disease is to be eschewed, as she is merely a token of inevitable decay without the redeeming virtue of impregnable beauty. As Becker explains, “If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn’t have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did… then all the investment we have made in her is undermined.
The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it ??? death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. ” 13 The narrators’ inability to accept their own mortality leads them to reject this tangible reminder of human frailty; however, someone who dies while still lovely provides an opportunity both for romantic idolizing of the beloved and romantic idealizing of Poe’s “most melancholy” topic, death (E&R, 19). Emblematic of the abhorrence of decay is the narrator’s characterization in “The Spectacles” of Madame Lalande as a “wretch” and a “villainous old hag” upon his discovering her true age on their wedding day (P&T, 638).
The narrator’s passionate outcry against her is clearly a farcical element, but his rage is not at his own pride and inanity but at the audacity of a woman. Mme. Lalande’s chief wrongs against him are daring to have lost her youth and using artifice in order to enhance her beauty. Lalande is the opposite of Poe’s feminine ideal: she is more than a match for the narrator in intelligence; she is active; she is not young nor delicately beautiful; and although she is his own greatgreat-grandmother she seems completely uninterested in nurturing him.
She terrifies him not only with her subliminal reminder of his own mortality, but also with her violation of what Poe’s narrators have come to expect in their brides. Once a woman steps out of the narrow boundaries of the stereotypical feminine role, she is reviled rather than revered. This argument is borne out by others of Poe’s tales, including Eleonora, Berenice, and Morella. Eleonora epitomizes Poe’s ideal: young, unlearned, impressionable, and completely dedicated to her love for him. Only fifteen years old, compared with her lover’s age of twenty, she is, significantly, also his cousin.
A combination of the poetic ideal and the more complex prose females, she has eyes that are brighter than a flowing river, and, in the original publication, “the lilies of the valley were not more fair, ” but she also has the prerequisite “majestic forehead” and “large luminous eyes of her kindred. ” She is exceptionally frail and beautifully sickly, “slender even to fragility, ” with an “exceeding delicacy” of frame. Her complexion speaks “painfully of the feeble tenure by which she held existence. 14 After plumbing the depths of “the fervor of her love” for the narrator, her main concern at death is whether the narrator will remain true to her memory or will marry another. These scenes are reminiscent of Ligeia’s “idolatrous love” and the narrator’s subsequent remarriage in that tale. They are also prescient of Poe’s own experience with Virginia’s youthful death and his subsequent years spent with her mother, “Muddy”; however, this narrator remains faithful to the memory of his departed longer than Ligeia’s widower or Poe himself, as years pass before he leaves the Valley of Many-Colored Glass and courts again.
Eleonora’s love is as all-consuming as the narrator could wish, but her jealous acceptance of the promise of fidelity introduces a question of power that does not arise in the poetry, in which Poe’s females are romantically submissive. However, the power struggle is absolutely resolved in favor of the narrator, who not only loves Ermengarde with the passion he once felt for Eleonora, he even denigrates the previous relationship, thus proving faithless not only to his pledge but also to the memory of his earlier beloved.
Conveniently, the “Spirit of Love” absolves the narrator for breaking his vow, removes whatever curse has been invoked by his marrying Ermengarde, and releases him from the claims of Eleonora. First published in 1841, this tale is perhaps wishful thinking on Poe’s part as Virginia’s illness intensifies. However, earlier tales of conflicted emotion emphasize the narrator’s struggle with strong-willed, threatening women and offer complex conclusions rather than this pat deus ex machina.
The silent Berenice at first seems remarkably similar to Eleonora: she, also, is the cousin of her betrothed, has a high, pale forehead, is “unparalleled” in her beauty, and “had loved [the narrator] long” (P, 229). But instead of reciprocating this love, the narrator plainly states his objectification of Berenice: “I had seen her ??? not as the living and breathing Berenice, but as the Berenice of a dream… not as a thing to admire, but to analyze ??? not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse although desultory speculation” (P, 229).
Jacqueline Doyle points out that as Berenice’s disease progresses, this “distancing” of Egaeus from his fiancee becomes even more pronounced through his use of the definite article to describe “the” forehead, etc. , rather than “her. ” 15 Egaeus proposes marriage despite his passions that were purely “of the mind” and despite his revulsion at the changes wrought in her “identity” ??? however that is to be interpreted ??? by this disease. His horror becomes unbearable as her physical condition deteriorates.
When he last sees Berenice, she is drastically emaciated, and her alteration is manifested in the change in hair color from black to a “vivid yellow” that is out of keeping with her fatal state. Her sickness manifests the poetic traits to an extreme, moving from the realm of the beautiful to that of the bizarre and repellent. Her hair is an incongruous yellow, she is emaciated rather than merely slender, and her delicate pallor becomes a deathlike pall. Instead of the bright eyes of Poe’s poetic heroines, hers are “lifeless, and lustreless, and seemingly pupil-less, ” with a “glassy stare” (P, 230).
Her lips are “thin and shrunken, ” offering a smile of “peculiar meaning” that so horrifies the narrator that he apparently swoons or looks down, or it would seem so, since when the text resumes after the major ellipsis the narrator must look up to see the door close behind Berenice. Drawing on the earlier comments of Becker and Kennedy, I would interpret the meaning of Berenice’s smile as a suggestion of the inevitability of the narrator’s similar fate. 16 Upon seeing Berenice, her fiance has already become corpse-like: he suffers an “icy chill” throughout his frame, he falls “for some time breathless and motionless. Upon seeing her teeth and ghastly smile, he wishes for death and then fades from the reader’s sight into the void of the major ellipsis. The teeth are horrific because, as Liliane Weissberg points out, the “symmetry and lifeless lustre of her teeth ??? indicators of health and beauty ??? become noticeable only in their difference from the decaying body. ” 17 Her emaciated, bleached features are already skeleton-like, and these teeth are a source of horror in the skull-like face. The narrator’s terror is evoked by the specter of his own decay and demise, but an erotic specter rises before him as well.
Showing one’s teeth in a smile can indicate sexual interest, and if the “peculiar meaning” of Berenice’s grin is of carnal desire, the cerebral narrator would be doubly overcome. The nature of Berenice’s ailment has not been revealed, nor has its complete manifestation. But it has somehow altered her identity, both in her “moral and physical being” (P&T, 227, my italics); Egaeus notes the “alteration produced by her unhappy malady in the moral condition of Berenice” (P&T, 229, original italics).
If her most disturbing change is in the moral realm, one could assume that she is exchanging her innocence for sexuality, a prospect that would terrify her reclusive, passionless fiance. 18 Another moral shift might be her foregoing her contented, naive feminine role for that of the male sphere of knowledge, signaled by her appearing to Egaeus in his hallowed library ??? the site of male birth and female death. Either interpretation involves a threat to his power in his bookish realm or in their relationship.
Whichever of these readings ??? Berenice as sign of mortality, as sexualized creature, or emerging New Woman ??? is most convincing, they are all fulfilled in Egaeus’s pulling her teeth in order to gain mastery over the ideas they represent. He destroys the vision of the ghastly grinning skull and also desexualizes the corpse by removing this token of devouring carnality. The threat of the first of Poe’s “Dark Ladies” has been contained, but Morella and Ligeia prove more difficult to control. “Morella” presents another passionless, apparently motiveless, marriage, this time to the narrator’s “friend” rather than his cousin.
His admiration for her is mental rather than emotional, as he is impressed with his wife’s vast knowledge. He abandons himself to her educational guidance, silently listening for hours to her disquisitions. However, despite her typically attractive appearance (melancholy eyes, high forehead, wan complexion, and “ringlets of silken hair” that both she and their daughter share), the narrator comes to revile Morella without being able to say why. One theory for the rejection of his wife is her intellectual threat.
His wife is “a woman of emotional intensity and determined will who threatens the narrator with complexities which he cannot understand, let alone reciprocate. ” Her dominant role as mentor eventually “becomes insupportable, and he rejects her as a threat to his masculine superiority and leadership…. His ensuing revulsion diminishes her life. ” 19 She is wise enough to know the cause of his disregard and calls it “Fate”; ironically, her explanation for their intellectual incompatibility also is her husband’s weak rationale for their having been originally “bound” at the altar.
Another reason for his repugnance could be her representation of death. As her skin pales and her veins become apparent, she develops an expression in her “meaning eyes” that affects the narrator with “the giddiness of one who gazes downward into some dreary and unfathomable abyss” (P&T, 236). The narrator sees his own demise prefigured in this grave-like image. From then on, he longs for Morella’s death, and considers the time “irksome” before she is in the grave. 0 The husband is “furious” and “cursed the days, and the hours, and the bitter moments” until her decease” (P, 236), much as Morella curses him by reappearing in the person of their daughter. This daughter, who is born as the mother dies, raises the specter of sex in the story. Although their conjugal union is supposedly passionless, a child results, and his revulsion could be directed both at Morella’s pregnant body and the incipient child. His “gradual alienation” could be the result of sexual terror, though; when he “felt a forbidden spirit enkindling within, ” she takes his hand and speaks “some low singular words. Eventually, he says, “joy suddenly faded into horror, and the most beautiful became the most hideous” (P&T, 234???235). The husband is terrified of Eros, and he rejects Morella because she reminds him of both carnality and maternity. As Debra Johanyak remarks, “It is the narrator’s failure to live up to his marital and paternal duties, and his reactionary horror to his wife’s and daughter’s achievements, that constitute the evil in this tale. ” 21 Although Morella appears to accept passively her husband’s disregard, her deathbed curse and reincarnation in the person of their daughter proves otherwise.
Although the narrator does what he can to forget that Morella ever existed, never even speaking her name to their daughter, Morella is clearly manifested in the unearthly knowledge of their precocious offspring. Johanyak points out that the daughter “represents even more strongly the independent strengths and talents for which her mother died. ” 22 And the child’s death is as inevitable as that of her threatening mother. By invoking the name of the mother, the narrator imparts her fate to the daughter as well, and both “Dark Ladies” are struck down.
The closing scene is of the narrator giving a “long and bitter laugh” at both Morellas’ tomb ??? an ambiguous response, at best, as it is unclear whether he is commemorating Morella’s revivification or her final laying to rest in the person of the daughter. The former response would emphasize Morella’s power, the latter the narrator’s. The power struggle between Ligeia and her husband is much more clearly resolved, as at the end of her tale she shrinks from his touch and stands, regally, while he is at her feet.
Ligeia’s mighty will proves more than an equal for the protagonist; she is the only female in Poe’s tales or poems to triumph both over death and, more significantly, over her narrator. Stovall argues that Ligeia is Poe’s “incarnation of feminine perfection” but also points out that “she was no more than a feminine portrait of [Poe] as he wished to be. Her personal beauty, analytic mind, immense learning, powerful will, and supreme love were qualities which he himself possessed in varying degrees. 23 Thus, through Ligeia’s triumph, Poe disproves death’s finality for the women in his life and denies his own mortality. Ligeia is the quintessential “Dark Lady, ” except that her black hair and eyes, low voice, and quiet step are all described in surreal or ethereal terms that differentiate her from the rest of Poe’s heroines. This physical description already sets her apart as “Other” from the narrator and all humanity; thus her immense learning and active will are both acceptable traits in this extraordinary being. 4 Also defying the norm is her “idolatr[ous]” love for the narrator, as her devotion to her husband, entangled as it is with her indomitable will to live, is possibly surpassed only by that of Annabel Lee. Like the loving and learned Morella, Ligeia is the nurturing mentor figure for her husband. Cynthia Jordan notes that “Ligeia’s authority over him was like a mother’s over her child; his language speaks of emasculation. ” She dominates him even on her deathbed, as she “peremptorily” commands him to recite the poem she wrote, and he immediately obeys.
Jordan also speculates that Ligeia’s sexuality was a source of anxiety for the narrator; Ligeia bends over him in his studies and fills his mind with “vivid delight” at a prospect of “that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden! ” (P, 266). Jordan emphasizes this passage as proof of Ligeia’s “usurp[ing] the male prerogative” as sexual aggressor, 25 but it also conflates knowledge and carnality and shows Ligeia’s domination in both these areas.
Although Ligeia differs in significant ways from other Poe females, the narrator is as repetitive as ever, a weak-willed, fearful narcissist who escapes from memories of his wife by spending her bequest on travel, opium, and a macabre bedroom for his new bride. The brevity of his solitary state is in keeping with his self-absorption at Ligeia’s deathbed: rather than expressing grief at his wife’s loss of life, or at humanity’s loss of her potential intellectual contributions, the narrator bemoans only his own fate, asking how he had “deserved to be so blessed by such confessions? how had [he] deserved to be so cursed with the removal of [his] beloved in the hour of her making them? ” (P&T, 267). Terrence Matheson adds that the narrator is “[p]reoccupied only with his loss of Ligeia in her role as his worshiper, [and] her capacity to feed his craving for self-esteem and the deprivation of this source of adoration are all that concern him. ” 26 Matheson argues that the narrator’s resentment and greed cause him to murder both Ligeia and Rowena, who although a “fair” heroine, with the delicacy, youth, and vulnerability of Poe’s poetic idols, meets an even worse fate than Ligeia.
If not murdered, Rowena is at least emotionally abused by her husband, and her body is possessed by the dominating Ligeia. The scene of revivification enacts the struggle between the “Dark” and “Fair” Ladies of Poe and crystallizes the symbolism of his two female types. The Feminine Ideal, the beautiful, naive maiden who dies an untimely death, is opposed to the willful, dark-haired woman who fascinates but also threatens the narrator with reminders of his own vulnerability and decay. Berenice is Poe’s prototypical “Dark Lady, ” and it is her sudden hair-color change combined with her otherwise decaying features that initially unsettles the narrator. ) Upon conquering her foe, Ligeia scorns the touch of the narrator, offering no solace: although her will has triumphed over death, she is still a manifestation of the decay that rives Rowena’s body as the two spirits fight for its possession. Ligeia and Morella both challenge the narrator in ways that Poe’s stereotypical feminine heroines do not.
For the narrator, the true horror in these particular “tales of terror” is that a beautiful woman can wield her own power. Craig Howes argues that Poe’s whole aesthetic rests on the a priori assumption that beautiful women are passive, weak, and therefore especially vulnerable to the terrifying powers of death. Women cannot consciously direct or cause death; they can only embody or fall victim to it. Poetic melancholy is male ??? a sorrow for the loss of a beautiful, and therefore pitiful, object…. he narrator sees, if only for a moment, the incipient, hidden power residing within the beautiful ??? a power that can triumph over even that most sublime of subjects, death itself. ” 27 The narrator is terrified by Ligeia’s reappearance not so much because it means she has conquered death but because she does it through an act of vehement will, a powerful volition that renders him prostrate. Stovall terms Ligeia as Poe’s feminine ideal, 28 but I would disagree.
Poe’s idealized woman, whose figure reappears throughout his work, is not the sexualized, intellectually overpowering Ligeia, but rather a passive, blonde version of the women who nurtured him and then died. Oliver has pointed out the similarities between the appearance of Poe’s heroines and the portraits or descriptions of Eliza Poe, Frances Allan, and Virginia Clemm. Eliza and Virginia both feature a high forehead, and they all had long, black hair and dramatically dark eyes; these are features that figure prominently in Poe’s descriptions. 9 The wide or high brow and “bright” or “luminous” eyes are included in nearly every depiction of females. Ligeia has her own voice; she writes poetry, and by having her husband recite it even places her words in his mouth. Much more often, the narrator chooses women who are nearly speechless, as even this husband does in the person of Rowena. The poetic women are already in the grave, and the fictional ones are not far from this permanently silenced state. Stereotypical “feminine” quiescence most typifies the still-living heroine, whether she is light- or dark-featured.
Even Morella and Ligeia have low, musical voices, and many have unnaturally light footsteps (Eleonora, Ligeia, Berenice). Rather than his ideal as a partner, Ligeia is Poe’s ideal of himself. She is Poe’s own version of Madeline Usher: his haunting, beautiful twin. Berenice, Morella, and Madeline Usher, the other “Dark Ladies, ” are not eulogized to nearly the same extent as the fair, ethereal beings in the poetry. Even Ligeia’s husband travels only a few months before buying a home and preparing it for his new bride, while Eleonora’s husband languishes for years before courting Ermengarde.
Gentle, vulnerable, delicate females, such as Eleonora and Annabel Lee, pose no sexual or intellectual threat, and their sudden, poignant deaths serve several purposes: they end the relationship while it is still in its early stages of absolute devotion, and they prevent the narrator from having to face the grisly terms of his own mortality. But most importantly for Poe, their dying serves the poetic purpose of enhancing the male’s experience of melancholy Beauty, “that pleasure… at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure” (E&R, 16).