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Eve Cilia Morisi The Female Figure of Poe’s Poetry: A Rehabilitation DespitePoe’s notorious premise that woman constitutes “the most poetical topic in the world”provided , of course, that she be “dea[d]” and “beautiful” (El?, 19)-few critics have focused on the Poesque female’s identity in poetry. The writer’s controvertible status as a lyricist, and his supposed disposition to compose what Henry James condemnedas“veryvaluelessverses”orwhat authoritativescholars,fromFloyd StovalltoDaniel Hoffman, have deemed monotonous, repetitive productionsin “apompous,inflated,elephantine style,”have contributedto the dearth of extensive studiesof Poe’sfemalecentered verse.’ Moreover, the poeticversionofPoe’sfemalefigure,i nherown right,maybe neglectedbecausecriticshave delved into other, albeit related, problematics, such as the historio-biographical origin of the artist’s compositions-whether his highly “conventionalminded ” treatment of gender, his mother- and/ or death-basedconstruction of femaleness,or the intriguingevocationsof actualwomenin hislines. Over the past decade, some Poe specialists,such asJoan Dayan and Leland S. Person, have also investigatedthenatureandextentof the androcentrism and feminism that coexist uneasily in Poe’s works2 However forceful, such criticism, which legitimatelyconcentrateson women’s “victimization , but also [on] their power and end~rance,”~ tends to eclipse other significant aspects of Poe’s femalecentered writing: either by underplaying his love poetry-to the benefit of his prose4+r by failing to define in depth what Poe’s female figure textually consists of before assessingwhat she interpretativelyconsists i n . Such shortcomings do not afflict Eliza Richards ’s Gender and t h P o e t i c s OfReception i n P o e ’ s Circle,which providesan insightfulreconsideration of women’s significantpresence and role in Poe’s poetic production and reception. Richards convincingly highlightsthe interdependencebetween Poe’sgeniusand the femininesphere,reaffirming the fact that a number ofwomen poets-namely Frances Sargent Osgood, Sarah Helen Whitman, and Elizabeth Oakes Smith-were models and rivals “whosework [Poe]both emulatedand sought to surpass.”These poetesses, as inspirations and catalysts,were at once essential and subservient to his writing. Richards claims that, if ”Poe’sliterary survival comes at the expense of his female contemporaries,...their work nevertheless lives on in his name.”5I argue that such a paradoxical configuration applies not only to these historical female figures but also to the female figures of his poetry. Expandingon Richards’swork through close readings, this essay shows the key role women played, aspoetic imuges, in the textualorganization and elaboration of Poe’s poetry. It attempts to resist the marginalizationof these women,which is served by the idea that they “lack individual development,”as Karen Weekes puts it in “Poe’s Feminine Ideal.”Weekes thereby summarizesthe common argument that Poe, the self-absorbed lady-killer, “never truly wrote about women at all,” but wrote “instead about a female object and ignor[ed] dimensions of character that add depth . . .to these repeated stereotypes of the beautiful damsel.”As a result, “theseusually passive , vulnerable, even dead, women are ripe for ...objectification.”6I want to evaluateand quallfy whatsuchstatementsimply:thatwomen characters fall prey to annihilationthrough their oversimplificationin Poe’spoetry.To that end, I will analyze woman’s aesthetic and functionalqualities in the compositionswhose titles evoke “ladies.” My corpus, made up of love lyrics, is an ec- 18 Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism lectic one: Some texts, such as “AValentine”and “To Helen” (intended for poets Frances Sargent Osgood and Sarah Helen Whitman) are designed as flirtations. Others, such as “ToM. L. W or “ToMy Mother”-respectively intended for Marie Louise Shew, who took care of the dyingVirginia and Edgar Poe, and for Maria Clemm,the writer’s aunt and mother-in-law,expressPoe’sgratitude to actual women in his life. A third group of poems, including such canonical works as the first “To Helen,” “Ulalume,”and “AnnabelLee,” arguably contains Poe’s most densely realized efforts. Such textual heterogeneity, allowinga diversified sense of the female character from both literal and metaphorical viewpoints,helps to define who-or what-Poe’s woman is as a poetic (id)entity. THE DE(CON) STRUCTIONOF WOMEN Criticalreadings that see Poe’sheroines asclichCd voids are, to some extent, valid. The poet does seem to overlook the potential for originalityand completeness in his female characters, to whom the “Fair Maiden” archetype frequently applies. The meagre portrayal of their physiology compulsivelyrevolves...


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