Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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 beauty—strange,
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 features—her
ivory skin, her raven tresses, her black eyes and eyelashes—all
of which “passed into my spirit,” he says, “there dwelling as a shrine.”
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 educated—proficient 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
presence, her readings alone, rendered vividly luminous the many mysteries
of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed,” the narrator says.
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
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 death—the
“Conquering Worm” of her poem.
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.
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.
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.
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 again—this
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.
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.
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.
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.
that moment on, her health rapidly worsened. Four days later, she was lying
dead in a shroud, and the narrator—again intoxicated
with opium—sat 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.
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.
hour later, he heard another sound and saw on close observation a slight
movement of Rowena’s lips. She was alive! But when he attempted to revive
her—bathing her temples and shaking her body—there
was no response. Furthermore, the body turned icy cold and stiff. When
the narrator’s 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.
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.
unnamed city near the Rhine River in Europe; a gloomy abbey in a remote
region of England. The abbey, hung with tapestries and curtains, has a
dark and foreboding atmosphere. It appears to symbolize the qualities of
the narrator’s late wife, who had raven hair, black eyes, and a mysterious
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 Ligeia’s death.
late first wife, a woman of extraordinary beauty and erudition whom the
narrator says deeply loved him. Her dark eyes and black hair, as well as
her deep knowledge of science and other fields of learning, give her a
mystical, transcendental quality that helps make the ending of the short
Lady Rowena Trevanion:
wife of the narrator. In contrast to Ligeia, she had fair hair and blue
eyes. She represents traditional beauty whereas Ligeia represents a dark,
mysterious, ethereal beauty. Not long after the narrator’s marriage to
Rowena, Rowena begins to avoid him because of his moodiness, and he begins
to despise her.
of Work, Publication Date, and Background on Ligeia's Poem
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,
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 shortcomings—including
his opium addiction and his failing memory—he
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
otherwise—that 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
Ligeia’s 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
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.
Choice and Tone
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 shape—that 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
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
Poe’s 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.
First and Second "Reincarnations"
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
reincarnation—at 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.
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:
a reference to Ashtoreth, Egyptian goddess of fertility.
Azrael: Angel in
Middle East folklore that separates the body and soul at death.
Bacon: Sir Francis
Bacon (1561-1626), who held the titles of Viscount of St. Alban and Baron
of Verulam. He was a brilliant essayist as well as a writer of philosophical
and political works. Poe quotes him in the following passage:
"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.
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
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
(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.
character of The History of Nourjahad, by Frances Sheridan (1724–1766).
When Nourjahad wishes for immortality, the Persian ruler Schemzeddin uses
drugs to make him believe he will live forever.
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 couple—John
Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was
believed to be Poe’s 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.
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
1840: Edgar Allan Poe Society
1845: Edgar Allan Poe Society
1850: Edgar Allan Poe Society
Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Edgar Allan Poe Society
University of Virginia