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Thirty-Two Stories

By Edgar Allan Poe; Stuart Levine et al. | Go to book overview

LIGEIA

In Poe's long (264-line), unfinished poem "Al Aaraaf" appears Nesace's song to Ligeia, "the soul of beauty," or "the goddess of harmony" (A. H. Quinn; Carlson 2). A contemporary explanation which Poe editorially supervised (and so presumably approved) said that Ligeia was a "personification of music (Mabbott 9, II; see also Mabbott, Collected Works of EAP, I, 123-4). Poe poem is mystical in message: only intuitive creativity can achieve cosmic and supernal beauty. Scientific knowledge is a lesser path; its "Truth is Falsehood."

Poe's stories of the death of a beautiful woman share several important features. First, the transcendent message implied by the name "Ligeia" is common to all. Some critics use stronger language than "transcendent": magical, or occult. In each story, a visionary sees the underlying truths of the universe. The world he sees is sentient; the human mind, which, to the enlightened, is identical with the universe, also creates the universe; and "equivalences" are real and not merely symbolic. The corpse of Rowena moves each time only after the narrator dreams of Ligeia. One can question Poe's seriousness; at least two tales in this group are also satirical. Mysticism and humor, however, are not incompatible, and Poe's other writings also suggest his commitment to "the perennial philosophy."

Secondly, the psychological connection between death, sexuality, and creativity which would be noted later by Freud is extremely explicit here. The fascination with death so evident in art and popular culture in Poe's day is doubtless unwholesome, and deserves the satire which Poe, Hawthorne, and later Twain directed against it. It is, we should note, no stronger in Poe than in other artists of the time: how many sopranos expire gracefully, belting out da capo arias, in operas of the period? It is perhaps a sign of health that the artistic credo which Poe enunciated in "The Philosophy of Composition" now seems unsavory to us: "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world. . . ."

And finally, in each tale of this sort, Poe provides an escape valve. We see the action through the eyes of narrators who are wounded, drugged, insane, terrified, or a combination of such states. We can, if we wish, read these tales as psychological studies and assume that what occurs in them is not "real," but rather the vision of a deranged intelligence. Or we can say that they reflect the belief common in folklore and occultism that the insane, drugged, or deranged can see truths inaccessible to most of us.

A note of explanation: The paragraph located by note 6 seems important in Poe's thought. Romantic artists, reacting against the modern tendency to see artists as at best specialists in producing aesthetic artifacts, repeatedly harkened back to times when artists were also seers, prophets, visionaries, founts of truth and inspiration. So Ligeia pursues knowledge of occult religions, which exemplify such unity. The "circle of analogies" in this

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