American Romanticism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 12th grade
The American Romantic period was essentially a Renaissance of American literature. “It was a Renaissance in the sense of a flowering, excitement over human possibilities, and a high regard for individual ego” (English). American romantics were influenced by the literary eras that came before them, and their writings were a distinct reaction against the ideology of these previous eras. In this sense, American Romanticism grew from “. . . the rhetoric of salvation, guilt, and providential visions of Puritanism, the wilderness reaches of this continent, and the fiery rhetoric of freedom and equality . . .” as they eagerly developed their own unique style of writing (English). American romantic authors had a strong sense of national identity and pride in being American. For this reason, American authors during this time had a distinct desire to develop their own unique character separate from British literature. In order to accomplish this goal, the poet Edgar Allan Poe was defiant and individualistic in his writing; and this explains the remarkable creativity found throughout his work. One short story in particular, “Ligeia,” which Poe published in 1838, demonstrates all the major aspects of the American Romantic revolution: rejection of classicism, fervent idealism, and unusual remoteness regarding time and space.
The story of “Ligeia” follows an unknown narrator and his wife Ligeia, who is a beautiful, mysterious, and intelligent character. Ligeia dies, and she mutters passages from an odd poem entitled “The Conqueror Worm” in her last breaths. Later, the narrator remarries—this time with a woman named Rowena who is not nearly as beautiful, mysterious or intelligent as Ligeia. Rowena is the stereotypical woman, a classical example of what women were supposed to be during the era. Interestingly, Rowena also dies, and the narrator, who we learn is an opium addict, supervises the body overnight. The story ends with Rowena coming back from the dead, transformed into Ligeia. Throughout the entirety of the story, Poe provides the reader with countless examples of his bias towards romantic ideals and his mastery of American Romantic literature.
The most obvious aspect of American Romanticism in this short story is the rejection of classicism. During the romantic period, America was thriving economically and the focus of most people’s lives was on economic and material success. The Romantic Revolution that took place in 19th-century America was a revolt against the economic realities of the day and the theories of Locke and Franklin. American romantics sought to break away from traditional literary forms; they did not agree with the commonly accepted principals of “classicism” and “formality” as being indicators of literary merit. On the contrary, these romantics believed that “inspiration, enthusiasm, and emotion” mattered much more than outdated standards of merit that required conforming to a set of rules. The world is emotional and organic, not mechanical or rational. “Good literature should have heart, not rules . . .” (English). This explains why Poe makes the narrator’s first wife, Ligeia, have such remarkable beauty; for the narrator, Ligeia’s beauty serves as a source of love and endearment. As the narrator of the story puts it “. . . the character of my beloved . . . made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown” (Lombardi). Ligeia’s “singular yet placid cast of beauty” is in sharp contrast to Rowena’s “fair-haired” and “blue-eyed” classical beauty. Poe repeatedly points out the superiority of Ligeia’s beauty because it does not conform to the typical definition of beauty. Ligeia’s features “were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen” (Lombardi). Poe undoubtedly sees flaws in the narrator’s second wife because she fits the mold too easily. And perhaps the most extreme example of Poe’s rejection of the ordinary and embracing of the strange can be seen in certain passages describing Ligeia’s mysterious characteristics. He describes the narrator’s beautiful wife as one would describe a ghost: “She came and departed as a shadow.” He describes her eyes as unreal and superhuman because of their large size: “far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race.” Ironically, at times Ligeia even frightens the narrator with her “grotesque” appearance. However, throughout the entirety of the story, these odd appearance traits are objects of reverie for the narrator, and he makes clear to point this out repeatedly. Poe rejects classical values and welcomes the supernatural through the vivid descriptions of Ligeia’s uncanny beauty. (Deter)
Poe also manages to display another key trait of American Romantics—fervent idealism—in this morbid and frightening tale. Idealism was embraced by American romantic writers because they firmly believed in the lofty goals of democracy, even though at many times these goals were never realized. In this sense, American romantics were optimists. They were champions of individualism and believed firmly in the possibilities of humankind and man’s good nature. This optimism can be seen in the narrator’s account of his wife’s reincarnation in the body of another woman. Although the narrator’s story appears sincere and is certainly not lacking in detail, he is a self-proclaimed opium addict, which makes him an unreliable narrator. However, the romantic optimism of Poe is apparent because upon seeing Rowena rise from the dead, he assumes that it is Ligeia that has actually come back from the dead in Rowena’s body, however unlikely. This exaggerated optimism could have been caused by Ligeia’s knowledge of “metaphysical investigation,” knowledge described as “. . . wisdom too divinely precious to not be forbidden.” (Lombardi). In this sense, the narrator’s opium addiction can be seen as a form of optimism—even idealism. Indeed the narrator even admits this optimism to himself: “. . . in the excitement of my opium dreams, I would call aloud upon her name, during the silences of the night . . . as if . . . I could restore her to the pathway she had abandoned . . . upon the earth.” (Lombardi). Of course, these dreams are nothing more than hallucinations and false hopes caused by the opium drug. Still, they contain embedded within them a sense of “optimism against all odds.” Nowhere is this clearer than Ligeia’s assertion that “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” (Lombardi). This implies that Ligeia’s return from death could actually be literal, and that a strong will can actually keep someone alive. This type of extreme optimism—stubborn idealism—like keeping someone alive by sheer will of force, is typical of American romantic authors.
The last trait of the American Romantic period which Poe demonstrates in the short story “Ligeia” is an unusual remoteness regarding time and space. During the 19th century, American romantic writers were trying to disconnect themselves from past literary styles; writers often added a “theme of unusual remoteness regarding time and space” to make this disconnect literal and obvious to the reader (Deter). In “Ligeia,” Poe accomplishes this by making the narrator lose track of time. The narrator cannot even remember how he knows his wife or when or where they met: “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia.” (Deter). He doesn’t even know his beloved wife’s last name. Ligeia has completely taken control of the narrator’s mind and altered his perception of time and events. In this sense, she is supernatural and can control time, at least for the opium-addicted narrator, anyway. Furthermore, Ligeia’s identity has no clear-cut beginning (since we don’t know when or how she met the narrator) or end (since she never really dies in the mind of the narrator). Additionally, we don’t know how Ligeia is able to manipulate time and space to come back to life in the body of another woman. It appears that under the influence of drugs, the narrator epitomizes romantic idealism. He takes no note of time when observing Ligeia’s revival: “It might have been midnight, or perhaps earlier, or later, for I had taken no note of time, when a sob, low, gentle, but very distinct, startled me from my revery (sp) . . .” (Lombardi). Without a sense of time, space, or reality, the narrator’s first-hand account is questionable at best, but serves its mysterious and misleading purpose. It’s this sort of innovation and defiance of other 18th-century writer’s philosophies that makes Poe a romantic.
“The world of Poe’s tales is a nightmarish universe. You cross wasted lands, silent, forsaken landscapes where both life and waters stagnate” (Asselineau). However, surprisingly, Poe demonstrates many characteristics of American romantic writers. For one, his stories constantly challenge classic authority, a cornerstone of the American Romantic Movement. His eerie idealism and uncertain description of time and space also tag him as a prime example of a romantic American author. For these reasons, Edgar Allan Poe will forever be remembered as a leader of the American Romantic Movement and one of the greatest authors to ever live.
Asselineau, Roger. “Edgar Allan Poe.” American Writers. Ed. Leonard Unger. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. 409-32. Resource on famous American writers, arranged alphabetically.
Deter, Floramaria. “Romanticism & the Supernatural in Edgar Allan Poe’s Ligeia.” About.com. 2007. About, Inc. 12 Nov. 2007 <http://classiclit.about.com/od/poeedgarallan/a/aa_eapoeligeia.htm>. Analysis of Romanticism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
English. Dept. home page. 18 Aug. 2001. Virginia Commonwealth U. 6 Nov. 2007 <http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng372/intro.htm>. ENGLISH 372: American Romanticism, Fall 2002. Information on American Romanticism.
Lombardi, Esther. “Legeia - Edgar Allan Poe.” About.com. 2007. About, Inc. 12 Nov. 2007 <http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/eapoe/bl-eapoe-ligeia.htm>. The full work “Legeia” by Edgar Allan Poe republished in online format by About.com.
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