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POE'S "LIGEIA" AND THE ENGLISH ROMANTICS CLARK GRIFFITH M ORE than any of his major American contemporaries, Edgar Allan Poe shifted facilely and readily from one vein of prose fiction directly into another. There simply were no well-defined stages in Poe's writing, no set periods during which he concentrated exclusively upon some particular aspect of his prose material. Even the early, abortive Folio Club project was designed for a combination of humorous sketches and Gothic tales. And later as Poe's interests broadened to include satire, philosophy, and ratiocinative themes, he proved quite capable of composing, all within the space of a few months, a characteristic horror story, a burlesque, an analytical tale, and a metaphysical dialogue. Yet it is a curious fact that critical studies of Poe regularly ignore the chronological pattern of his work and emphasize instead its similarities according to type. One can find a dozen worth-while books or essays in which scattered examples of Poe's fiction, individual pieces done ten or fifteen years apart, are lumped together in breathlessly neat categories. But one looks in vain for an interpreter who acknowledges that, however apparently different the actual texts may be, what Poe wrote in a given June was just possibly influenced by-was somehow interrelated with-what he had already written in the preceding May. The results of this overcompartmentalized approach are, I think, lamentable. Not only does study always by type but never by time destroy all sense of the continuity in Poe's writing. Much more seriously, it completely blinds us to whatever possibility there is that his scrambled order of composition, his easy hopping from genre to genre, may sometimes have been shrewdly purposeful-and may sometimes be most astonishingly revealing. By way then of exploring certain potentialities latent in a chronological rather than typal investigation of Poe, let us begin with a very rapid consideration of "Ligeia" (1838). To casual and critical readers alike, this particular tale has always scemed peculiarly compelling; and we need linger only a moment on its Gothic surface to recognize how it does of course abound in the effects, the devices, the mannerisms which are typically, ";'nost mechanically, Poesque. A characteristically psychotic narrator recounts the story. Swiftly during the opening paragraphs he creates and sustains that atmosphere of indefinite terror, that portentous sense of new horrors to come, both Poc's familiar staples. Furthermore, as he describes his wife, now long 8 Vol. XXIV, no. 1, Oct., 1954 "LIGEIA" AND THE ENGLISH ROMANTICS 9 dead but still a haunting, ever present memory, the narrator simultaneously succeeds in casting the lady Ligeia as one of Poe's bizarre "outer wonders," and in revealing his own mental aberration, so essential for perception of the anomaly. Either Ligeia possessed no ordinary qualities, or the narrator, deprived of the usual logical faculties, proves totally incapable of naming them. He fails to recall her family, her parental name; groping to remember even the place of their first encounter, he fixes upon nothing more definite than a dim, decaying city near the Rhine. Yet his recollections are contrastingly clear when they have to do with Ligeia's extraordinary, her unworldly, characteristics. We hear vivid accounts of her eyes, remarkable for an indefinable mystery as well as for great beauty. Again the narrator speaks of Ligeia's studies, somehow related to her eyes and of an ambiguously metaphysical nature. He refers to her enormous learning, to the Transcendentalist studies in which they were both immersed. Finally it should be noticed how, despite his mental lapses, he carefully accentuates Ligeia's mystery by identifying her with unfathomable blackness- with dark Germany, with the night, with a shadow, with the strange ebony lustre of her hair and eyes. There follows a description of Ligeia's death, the transitional step between the -narrator's reveries and a symbolic drama which immediately ensues. Almost unaccountably she wasted away, shrieking wild utterances to the last and leaving the narrator distraught-but grieving , oddly enough, less for her physical loveliness than for the loss of her vast erudition. Bereaved and inconsolable, he now quits Germany, wanders to England, takes up residence in a gloomy, isolated...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 8-25
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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