By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......The narrator recalls his beloved Ligeia, now deceased, whom he met long ago in a city on the Rhine River. Her family's history went back many generations, but he never knew her surname even though she became his wife. His failing memory cannot recollect whether she forbade him to ask about her family name or whether he himself decided not to inquire about it.
.......In her later years, the tall, slender Ligeia had become quite thin, and she moved about like shadow. The narrator says her face was incomparably beautiful, with the radiance of an opium-dream. Hers was a different kind of beautystrange, irregular, not classical. But he could never quite isolate the quality that set her beauty apart. All he could do was marvel at her flawless featuresher ivory skin, her raven tresses, her black eyes and eyelashesall of which passed into my spirit, he says, there dwelling as a shrine.
.......However, though she was outwardly calm and quiet, violent passion sometimes raged within her, signaled by a look in her eyes or by words she repeated. She was highly educatedproficient in ancient and modern languages and in all the sciences. Consequently, she was a guiding light to him in his studies [the nature of which are not disclosed by the narrator].
.......Her presence, her readings alone, rendered vividly luminous the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed, the narrator says.
.......One day illness seized her. Her pallor foretold the course of the disease: It would kill her. But she resisted the inevitable with astonishing energy, for she loved life. As the affliction progressed, she expressed her deep love for the narrator, making him wonder what he had done to deserve such devotion.
.......While in bed on the day she died, she asked him to read a poem she had written a few days before. He recited its five stanzas, which observed that life is a stage play in which the actors all die when a gigantic worm comes onstage and consumes them. Mustering energy, she rose in protest of the ending she had written, asking whether God allowed some people to go on living, whether it was not possible to thwart deaththe Conquering Worm of her poem.
.......After she died, the narrator, devastated, wandered Europe aimlessly for several months. Finally, he purchased and took up residence in an abbey in a remote region of England. Its bleak, dismal exterior reflected his mood. The interior was appointed with heavy draperies, carvings of scenes in Egypt, and carpets with tufts of gold.
.......Still mourning the loss of Ligeia, he became addicted to opium and sought solace in a second marriage, to fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine. Her family had approved the marriage out of greed for his money. The bridal chamber was a large room inside a five-sided tower with a huge window tinted dull gray to dim the sunlight passing through it. A container for incense hung on a chain from the ceiling. When its fire burned, an arabesque pattern of holes in it created the illusion that the fire was crawling, like a snake. Furnishings in the room included ottomans, a golden candelabra, a bridal couch beneath a canopy, a black-granite sarcophagus from Egypt in each of the five corners, and all around huge tapestries of gold with black designs.
.......During the first month of marriage, Lady Rowena avoided the narrator because of his moodiness, and it was clear that she did not love him. For his part, he grew to despise her, and his mind wandered to memories of Ligeia. While in the throes of opium dreams, he would speak her name.
.......In the second month of the marriage, Lady Rowena became ill for a time, and she reported hearing sounds and seeing movements when her fever was high. The narrator assumed that her experiences resulted from the fever or from her response to the gloomy atmosphere of the chamber. She recovered from the illness, but a short time later fell ill againthis time from a more serious affliction than the first. She never fully recovered from it. When she became chronically ill, attending physicians were unable to diagnose or treat the malady.
.......In time, she became nervous, irritable, easily excited, and she again reported hearing sounds and seeing things. She noted in particular that the curtains moved. The narrator was unable to detect anything out of the ordinary.
.......One evening, after reporting strange phenomena, she became very pale, faint. While the narrator walked across the room to get wine that he thought might revive her, he had a feeling that something invisible had just passed by him and then saw a faint shadow beneath the censer. In telling his story, the narrator notes that at this time he was under the influence of opium.
.......When he held the wine to her mouth, she seemed already to be somewhat recovered and took the glass herself and drank. The narrator sat on an ottoman and watched her. Then he heard soft footsteps on the carpet and observed what appeared to be several drops of bright, deep-red fluid fall into the glass. Was what he was seeing an opium-induced hallucination? Possibly, he thought. Rowena, meanwhile, drank the wine without hesitation.
.......From that moment on, her health rapidly worsened. Four days later, she was lying dead in a shroud, and the narratoragain intoxicated with opiumsat with the body through the night. His eyes roamed the furnishings in the room. When they fell on the spot on the carpet where he had seen the faint shadow four days before, he saw nothing. Once again, memories of Ligeia filled his mind, even as he stared at the rigid body of Rowena.
.......A moment later he heard a sob coming from Rowena, but her body remained still. However, within a few minutes, color returned to her cheeks. The narrator was astonished. But just as quickly as it came, the color left her cheeks. In addition, her lips shriveled and her body became cold as marble.
.......An hour later, he heard another sound and saw on close observation a slight movement of Rowenas lips. She was alive! But when he attempted to revive herbathing her temples and shaking her bodythere was no response. Furthermore, the body turned icy cold and stiff. When the narrators thoughts again returned to Ligeia, he again heard a sound from the corpse. The rest of the night continued this way: The corpse would apparently come to life, then relapse into a deeper and more final state of death than before.
.......Finally, the body rose from the bed, still covered with the shroud, and walked to the middle of the room. The narrator sprang to his feet and walked over to it. At that moment, the shroud fell away, revealing raven hair and wild black eyes. It was Ligeia! His lost love had returned.
Narrator: A man who tells the story of last days of his beloved wife, Ligeia. He also recounts strange events in the months after her death, when he sought solace in opium and a second marriage. His memory is failing, although he remembers many specific details about Ligeia and his second wife, Lady Rowena, as well as the dark and mysterious
abbey where he lived after Ligeias death.
.......Ligeia is a short story in the Gothic horror genre. It was first published in a magazine, the Baltimore American Museum, on September 18, 1838. However, this version of the story did not contain the poem written by Ligeia, which is usually included in versions published today. That poem, "The Conqueror Worm," was published in January 1843 in Graham's Magazine, then later incorporated into "Ligeia." For a complete analysis of the poem, click here.
.......Poe wrote Ligeia in first-person point of view in the persona of an unreliable narrator. The narrator is considered unreliable because of his neurotic obsession with his lost love and his addiction to opium. Thus, the story is not necessarily a record of what actually happened but a record of what the narrator believed happened. Because he owns up to his shortcomingsincluding his opium addiction and his failing memoryhe enhances his credibility. Only a sane and rational man, it seems, would admit his faults. However, Poe cleverly leaves room for the reader to believe otherwisethat the narrator was indeed in the grip of dementia characterized by hallucinations and a too-ready willingness to accept the impossible as possible.
An All-Consuming Love That Does Not Die
.......Whether Ligeias reincarnation was an opium-induced hallucination or an actual event does not matter. What matters is that undying love caused her actual or imagined reappearance. Either the narrator willed his beloved back to life (as a phantasm or in the flesh) or Ligeia willed herself back to life. Poe stressed the power of the human will in the quotation that precedes the story and in a reference to the quotation in the story itself. Here is the quotation:
And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), English clergyman and writer.The Destructive Power of Obsessive Longing
.......The narrator becomes addicted to opium to escape (or perhaps intensify) his abnormal preoccupation with the memory of Ligeia, manifested by his continued mourning of her death. He isolates himself in a gloomy abbey, then takes another wife, a woman he does not love. Still, he can do nothing but think of Ligeia. In time, he plunges ever deeper into his addiction. Ultimately, if one interprets his perception of Ligeia's "reincarnation" as a hallucination, he appears to go insane.
.......Poe fashions his descriptions carefully in order to create an atmosphere of mystery and horror. For example, he describes the bridal chamber as having a pentagonal shapethat is, having five sides. Five-sided figures such as pentagons and pentagrams have long been associated with the world of the occult. In the following passage from "Ligeia" are highlighted words that help maintain eerie the atmosphere of the story:
Occupying the whole southern face of the pentagon was the sole window an immense sheet of unbroken glass from Venice a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either the sun or moon, passing through it, fell with a ghastly lustre on the objects within. Over the upper portion of this huge window, extended the trellice-work of an aged vine, which clambered up the massy walls of the turret. The ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device........Poe is also careful to capture the reader's attention at the very outset by introducing Ligeia as a uniquely beautiful but mysterious woman whom he loved with such depth that he still longs for her many years after her death. The French writer Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), author of the great poetic work Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), lauded Poe for his openings:
The opening passages of Poes writings always have a drawing power without violence, like a whirlpool. His solemn tone keeps the mind on the alert. We feel at the very outset that something serious is afoot. Then slowly, little by little, a story unfolds, the whole interest of which is founded on an imperceptible deviation of intellect, on some bold hypothesis, on a risky dosage by nature in the mixture of the faculties. The reader, as though in the grip of vertigo, is impelled to follow the author in his inviting deductions.Ligeia's First and Second "Reincarnations"
.......The narrator suggests at the end of the story that Ligeia came back to life in the body of Rowena, somehow changing the appearance of Rowena's body so that it resembled Ligeia's. However, it seems that there was an earlier reincarnationat least in the disturbed mind of the narrator. Ligeia apparently took the form of the five-sided bridal chamber. Its solemn, otherworldly atmosphere was a manifestation of her looks and her many-sided personality. It was she who caused Rowena's illness, she who made the curtains move (Ligeia's breathing?), and she who put the drops into Rowena's wine.
.......Poe uses a number of allusions to embellish his description of the mysterious, otherworldly elements that seem to be active in the story. These allusions include the following:
Ashtophet: Possibly a reference to Ashtoreth, Egyptian goddess of fertility.
"There is no exquisite beauty," says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty, "without some strangeness in the proportion."Delos: Greek island where Leto gave birth to the gods Apollo and Artemis.
Democritus: Ancient Greek philosopher (460-370 B.C.) who theorized that all matter in the universe consists of particles so small that they cannot be seen. He called these particles atoms (in the Greek singular, atomos, meaning indivisible) and maintained that they move about continuously in space, which he believed was boundless and bottomless. Poe's phrase "well of Democritus" may be a reference to the deep, unfathomable expanse of space.
Houri: Virgins in the Paradise of Islam who marry righteous and faithful Muslims. The Houri are described as having black eyes.
Lady Rowena: This may be a reference to the heroine of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, about knighthood and chivalry in England of the late 12th Century. After undergoing many trials fraught with danger, Lady Rowena and Ivanhoe marry at the end of the novel. It may be that Poe wished to cast Lady Rowena, the narrator's second wife in "Ligeia," as a symbol of conventional, romantic beauty in order to contrast her with Ligeia's unconventional, dark, ethereal beauty.
Ligeia: A siren (sea nymph) in Greek and Roman mythology. The Roman poet Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 B.C) refers to this siren (spelling the name Ligea, without the second i) in the fourth book of his Georgics (29 B.C.), along with three other sirens, all of whom were described as having shiny hair and "snowy shoulders." The English poet John Milton (1608-1674) refers to the siren Ligea in his 1634 masque Comus.
Nourjahad: Title character of The History of Nourjahad, by Frances Sheridan (17241766). When Nourjahad wishes for immortality, the Persian ruler Schemzeddin uses drugs to make him believe he will live forever.
.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless coupleJohn Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poes godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with
the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school.
Complete Free Texts
Ligeia 1840: Edgar Allan Poe Society
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