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Poe’s Poetics of Desire: “Th’ Expanding Eye to the Loved Object” Leland S. Person University of Alabama at Birmingham I take my subtitle for this essay, “‘Th’Expanding Eye to the Loved Object,”’ from a line in Poe’s early poem “Stanzas” (1827),for it concisely characterizes my concern with object relations in his poetry-specifically, with the reflexive power of a “loved object” to create a subject, to “expand” a male “eye,”through the medium of the gaze.’ The self-creative lines of desire in Poe’s poetry do not travel straight or unambiguously, however, and I would like to begin with another of Poe’s early poems , the 1829 “Alone,” because it foregrounds a central problem in his poetics of desire-the problem of unreciprocated desire. “From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were,” Poe’s speaker claims; I have not seen As others saw-I could not bring My passions from a common springFrom the same source I have not taken My sorrow-I could not awaken My heart to joy at the same toneAnd all I lov’d- I lov’d alone- ( Works, 1:146) Daniel Hoffman says that in this “confessional meditation” Poe comes close to defining “the essential Moi who speaks in his best poems.”2 If so, that “essential” self seems constructed out of difference-a sense of different desire, of not being able to “bring” his passions from a “common spring.” It is that sense of difference, represented in the desiring subject’s vexed relation to its love objects, that I want to explore in some of Poe’s poems about women. In assessing Poe’s representations of women and then speculating on the male subjectivity to be inferred from those represented objects, critics commonly begin with his infamous claim in “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) that “‘the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably , the most poetical topic in the ~ o r l d . ” ’ ~ They have disagreed, however, over where to place Poe on a misogynist-protofeminist spectrum-that debate often hinging on the issue of how much poetical and other pleasure Poe derived from the deaths of the beautiful women he himself had created . Cynthia Jordan and I have emphasized Poe’s representation of male failures to subordinate and silence women, his depiction of female characters who resist objectification and death, because such representations suggest Poe’s desire to grant female subjectivity a place in his writing. Joan Dayan has gone the furthest in analyzing the complexities of Poe’s representation of women, arguing that he not only “destabilizes any sure identification of women” but also “questions what it means to speak, or to love, as a man.”4 Many recent critics, however, stress the violence that Poe directs toward his female characters-especially the way death serves as a prerequisite for masculine creativity. Scrutinizing the conjunction of women, beauty, and death in Poe’s writing, for example, Elisabeth Bronfen argues that his poetics “seem to endorse a spectatorship that ignores the referent, the nonsemiotic body[,]and focuses its reading exclusively on the image as a self-reflexive,materialised sign.” Paula Kot observes that Poe’s aesthetic practice relies upon “silencing” the “feminine Other,” even as it demonstrates the “inherently unstable distinction between subject and object, viewer and viewed, male and female, reality and art.”5 Eliza Richards concludes that Poe predicates his poetic power upon women’s deaths: ‘‘not only do poetic texts thematize the deaths of beautiful women, but beautiful women generate poetic texts.” Characterizing Poe’s “inherent misogyny,” J. Gerald Kennedy considers his “sharply vacillating treatment of dying women”-swinging between idolatry , especially in the poetry, and violent aggression , in the tales-as part of a “neurotic paradigm” in which male “happiness and self-worth [have become ]contingent on sustained female affection.” In the absence of such affection, Kennedy discovers a conflicted male identity, a “grieving male” who “undergo[es]perpetual self-punishment for the un1 worthiness implied by the abandonment of the nurturing female” or who exacts revenge for his abject dependency.6 I would like to extend these insights into Poe’s literary relationship with women by treating the death of...


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