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  • Poe’s Ligeia and Helen of Troy
  • William Crisman


1. James W. Gargano takes the speaker as a straight-forward Faust, like “many other romantic heroes . . . in his agonized search for an ideal fulfillment” (“Poe’s ‘Ligeia’: Dream and Destruction,” College English 23 [1962]: 338). Jules Zanger emphasizes the anti-Faust aspect: the speaker is “essentially passive rather than active” (“Poe and the Theme of Forbidden Knowledge,” American Literature 49 [1978]: 534–35; also see Grace McEntee, “Remembering Ligeia,” Studies in American Fiction 20 [1992]: 79). Difficult as well to reconcile with a positive Faust figure are the phases of numbness or paralysis that readers detect, which seem counter to the general expansiveness of desires in Fausts from the chapbooks to Goethe. See Terry Heller, The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1987), 122; and G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), 104.

2. The derivation of Ligeia’s name from that of a siren putatively in The Odyssey (through Virgil to Milton) has been proposed so many times as to make Kent P. Ljungquist weary (“Poe,” in American Literary Scholarship: An Annual, 1995 [Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1997], 41). In addition to the sources Ljungquist cites, see Richard C. Frushell, “Poe’s Name ‘Ligeia’ and Milton,” American Notes and Queries 11 (1998): 18–20; for an extensive attempt to understand Ligeia as a siren, see Daryl E. Jones, “Poe’s Siren: Character and Meaning in ‘Ligeia,’” Studies in Short Fiction 20 (1983): 33–37. Frushell is wise to assign Poe’s awareness of the name’s classical provenance to Poe’s reading of Milton—the classical references themselves, consisting as they do of a roundabout through the twelfth-century commentator Bishop Eustathius, are too hard for Poe (and perhaps Frushell). On other derivations of Ligeia’s name from the ancients, see the case for Lilith in Linda J. Holland-Toll, “‘Ligeia’: The Facts in the Case,” Studies in Weird Fiction 21 (1997): 14; and Beverly A. Hume, “The Madness of Art and Science in Poe’s ‘Ligeia,’” Essays in Arts and Sciences 24 (1995): 23. And see the case for Lazarus in Paul John Eakin, “Poe’s Sense of an Ending,” American Literature 45 (1973): 1213.

3. Beyond Homer, classical sources for Helen, such as Euripides’ eponymous play or his many other plays that refer to Helen, appear very unlikely. Donald B. Stauffer’s essay “The Classical Erudition of Edgar Allan Poe,” in Perspectives on Poe, ed. D. Ramakrishna (New Delhi: APC Publications, 1996), 203–12, contains no reference to any such source. To the extent that Stauffer can take Poe’s “classicism” as anything more than a “rather hollow display of learning,” he does give him some credit as a reader of Latin (not Greek) and cites, as an example, his scansion of meter from Horace’s “first Ode” in “The Rationale of Verse” (205). Pursuing the lead to Horace does reveal one reference to Helen, in book 3, ode 3, the “mulier peregrina” of line 20; Horace does not name her, however, and presents her as an unwitting and unmentionable conspirator in Troy’s un-Roman decadence—a reference that seems to have no relevance for Poe, assuming that he even knew the passage. So confident is Arthur Hobson Quinn about Poe’s familiarity with Homer, however, that he is willing to say Homer taught Poe the true meaning of “the glory that was Greece” (Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography [1941; repr., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998], 178). Sadly, The Odyssey does not provide the key to Ligeia’s name that some readers assume; Frushell is either confused or confusing in claiming that “Homer’s original name for his siren is Λιλɛια(i.e., ‘clear voiced’), transliterated ‘Ligeia’” (“Poe’s Name ‘Ligeia,’” 18). Actually, Homer does not name his sirens in The Odyssey, book 12, nor does Merritt Hughes say he does in the footnote to Milton’s Comus that Frushell accurately quotes (but misreads?): “Ligeia is the name given to one of Homer’s sirens by the commentator Eustathius” (John Milton: Complete Poetry and...


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