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Modern Language Studies

Transcendence Downward: An Essay on "Usher" and "Ligeia"

Author(s): Beverly Voloshin
Source: Modern Language Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer, 1988), pp. 18-29
Published by: Modern Language Studies
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AnEssayon "Usher"and"Ligeia"

AmericanRomanticismregistersa fascinatingtransformationof
traditionalnotionsof transcendence.Thereare manyreasonsfor this,not
the leastof whichis thatby the earlynineteenthcenturythe successof the
scientificrevolutionand the disseminationof empiricistpsychology had
made it almost impossible to continueto conceive of the universeas a
hierarchy.For example,Newton's descriptionof what existsin termsof
mathematicalrelationsof mass in time and space has no up or down,
higheror lower, literallyor metaphorically,despite Newton's quite firm
belief in God. Althoughseveralaspects of Newtonian science were not
mechanistic,'the levelling tendency of Newton's work is evident in the
mechanisticinterpretationof Newton's physics which predominatedin
the eighteenthcentury.This levellingtendencyof the new science is also
apparentin Locke'sEssayConcerningHumanUnderstanding,whichwas
in partan attemptto constructa psychologicalmodel consonantwith the
new science-especially in Locke'sdenialof innateideas and his conception that all knowledge is built up from atomisticsensationsthroughthe
mind'spower of reflection.
In this connectionit is importantto recall the late popularityof
Locke'sEssayin New England.It was the Essaywhich left its impresson
the preeminentform of intellectuallife in New England from the late
eighteenth century throughthe first decades of the nineteenth,that is,
religion.It was in the late eighteenthcenturythatJonathanEdwardswas
seen as havingincorporatedthe sensationalismof Locke into Calvinism.2
In thisperiod at YaleCollege, Locke'sEssay was prescribedto ward off
the skepticaland materialisticconclusionswhich an uninstructedmind
mightderivefromtheEssay,thoughtheresultswere often the oppositeof
PresidentStiles'sintention.3At the beginningof the nineteenthcentury,a
particularconstructionof the Essay was taken as the cornerstoneof
Unitarianism;throughoutthe firstdecades of the nineteenthcentury,the
literatureof liberalProtestantismis drenchedin referencesand allusions
to Locke,andasTranscendentalism
emergedas a dissentingmovementin
the Unitarianranks,therewere almostas frequentattackson Locke.4In
the preliminaryessay to his edition of Coleridge'sAids to Reflection
(1829), James Marsh pointedly argued that Lockean metaphysics is
incompatiblewithspiritualreligion,thusattackingboth Unitarianismand
the infusionof Lockeanismintoorthodoxy.(Thiswas the most important
book for introducingto New EnglandintellectualsColeridge'sthoughtand throughit, Germanidealism.)In sum, the empiricistpsychology of
Locke, by leaving knowledge on the plane of sensationand reflection,
seemed to block all avenuesto a transcendentreality,conceived in either
Christianor Platonicterms,and it was preciselyLocke'stheory,in its late
vogue in Americanintellectuallife, againstwhich the Transcendentalists
revolted;yet whileLocke'sempiricismcreateda barrierto a transcendent

reality,it also pointed the Romanticsin a new direction,down into the

realmof sensoryexperience.
Whenthe writersof the 1830sand 1840striedto get outof theblock
universeor dead level of eighteenth-centuryempiricism,they produced
curious and paradoxicalfigures of transcendence.In Nature (1836),
Emerson,that representativeman of Transcendentalism,wrestles with
the problemof conceivingof transcendencewhichis not hierarchicaland
static. Emersonretainsthe hierarchicalmeaningof transcendencein his
model of higherusesof nature,but he alsoarguesfor the beautyandvalue
of the common and for the inherentmeaningof such devaluedphenomena as "sleep,madness,dreams,beasts, sex,"therebymoving us down a
traditionalhierarchyof being.5He can resolve the potentialproblem of
the locus of the transcendentalcategory of Spiritthroughhis images of
circles and circularpower, but in leaving moot the question whether
naturereallyexists,Emersonseems to leave his model of transcendence
withouta base.
In such tales as "Ligeia"(1838and latersignificantlyrevised) and
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), Poe presentstranscendental
projectswhich threatento proceed downwardratherthanupward.The
taleshave a paradoxicalstructurein which transcendenceis figuredas an
outwardor downwardmovement, as the method for going beyond the
universeof Lockeanempiricismis to go throughit. Despite the vogue of
Germanidealism, Emerson and Poe are closer to the Anglo-American
traditionthan has been generally acknowledged. In Nature, Emerson
baseshis transcendentalism
partlyon a refurbishedempiricism-that is, a
purifyingof the sensoryapparatus,as in the famousimage of the transparenteyeball;for Poe too sensationis virtuallyspiritualized,and sensation replaces spirit or reason as the privileged faculty, but for Poe the
natural process which promises transcendenceis preeminently-and
paradoxically-that of decompositionor decay.6
In "The Fall of the House of Usher,"metaphoricalmovement
downwardintoa peculiarsensationis the keynoteof the beginningof the
tale,andsuchlapsingwill itselffigureas the groundof transcendence.The
narrator'saccountbegins with his feeling of "depression,"which finds its
parallel in the setting: the day is "dull, dark and soundless,"without
ordinarysensorystimulation,and similarly,the scene is oppressiveand
melancholic,withoutvitality.The narratorcan compare his experience
"to no earthly sensationmore properly than to the after-dreamof the
reveller upon opium, the bitter lapse into every-day life-the hideous
droppingoff of the veil."7It is in severalrespectsthe experienceof fall,
fallingaway, aftermath,as thoughsome high point of life were past, and
everything-Roderick and Madeline,the House,the atmosphere-seems
to be in the last stages of decay.
The narrator's"depression"and "unredeemed dreariness of
thought"also representa falling off from, indeed an inversionof, the
sublimeexperience,which the narratorcould have expected, as he says,
from "thesternestnaturalimages of the desolate or terrible"(273). The
narratorwantsto believe in naturalcause,yet he cannoteven by an effort
of the will have one of the definitive Romanticexperiencesof nature19

transcendenceby sensingin naturehigherpowers.Justas his expectation

of the sublimeexperienceinvertsitself,so his changeof positiondoes not
produce the new sensationhe anticipatesbut rathera deepening of his
originalsensation,when he sees the images of the House invertedin the
tarn. The narrator'sexperience has none of the exalting or expansive
qualityof the experienceof the naturalsublime.
In line with these inversionsin the opening scene, the narrator's
descriptionsare studdedwith paradoxicalimagescombiningthe spirituallyhighwith thelow. The narratorsees the atmosphereof thehouseas "a
pestilentand mysticvapour"which is "leaden-hued"(276).Mysticdesignateshiddenor higherpower (aslaterin the "mysticsymbol"and"mystic
sign" of The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick), or as Poe writes in his
Drake-Halleckreview (1836),one of the majorstatementsof hisaesthetic
theory,the mystic is synonymouswith the ideal, the highestcategoryof
being.8 On the other hand, pestilent draws attentionto infection and
decay, and lead signifieswhat is base or unredeemedin many schemas,
and most notablyin thatof alchemicaltransformation.In alchemy,gold
is the perfectedmetaland sign thatthe alchemisthas attainedthe highest
truth;gold is traditionallythe mysticmetal.As the narratoris usheredinto
the "recessesof [Usher's]spirit"he is moved to describe Roderickin
similarlyparadoxicalterms:Roderick'sis "amind from which darkness,
as if an inherentpositive quality,poured forthon all objectsof the moral
and physicaluniversein one unceasingradiationof gloom.""Anexcited
andhighlydistemperedidealitythrewa sulphureouslustreoverall"(282).
Again, the mystic or ideal is tinged with what is materialor base, and
sulphur,as one of the ingredientsfor beginningthe alchemicalprocess,is
anothersignof whatis asyet unredeemed.9Roderickappearsto be drawn
into the processof non-transcendenttransformation
affectingthe House.
As the narrator'simages combine the traditionalopposites of the
spirituallyhigh with the materiallylow, Roderick'sexplanationssuggest
the interdependenceof the fall and rise of thought.In one of the less
abstractof Roderick'sworks,"TheHauntedPalace,"the narratordetects
"inthe underor mystic currentof its meaning... a full consciousnesson
the part of Usher, of the totteringof his lofty reasonupon her throne"
(284). Here the experience of fall-now Roderick's-is representedto
itself. It is a fall of orderinto chaos,reasoninto madness,innocenceinto
from thisballadaboutthe fall of thought
are certainsuggestionswhich culminatein Roderick'sexpressionof his
hereticalbelief in the sentienceof matter,even thatof "thekingdomof
inorganization,"a doctrinewe might term the organizationand rise of
thought.Sentiencedevelops from the "collocation"or "arrangement"
the partsof the ancestralhome of Usher,and its evidence is precisely,for
Roderick,his own fall: "Theresultwas discoverable,he added, in that
silent, yet importunateand terribleinfluence which for centurieshad
mouldedthe destiniesof his family,andwhichmadehimwhatI now saw
him-what he was" (286-7).The evidence for the orderingof thoughtis
Roderick'sexperienceof his own disintegration,as representedfor example in his ballad,so that he is broughtinto relationor harmonywith the
whole by losinghis originalorderedand harmoniousfunctions.

AsRoderick'sexplanationseffect a crossingof exaltedthoughtand

base matter,so the narrator'slanguagefor describinghis own experience
complicatesconventionalsuppositionsaboutthe distinctionof mind and
body. The narrator's"depression"recaststhe experienceof Coleridgean
dejectionor visionarydrearinessof Romanticpoetry, for dejectionis a
psychologicalor spiritualstate, but depressionnicely blends notionsof
psychological and physical cause. The same is true of the narrator's
confessionthathe is "unnerved"
by the sightof the Houseof Usher,forthe
nerves are the connectionbetween consciousnessand physicality.The
like Roderick'sstate,raisingthe questionwhetherthe narratoris perceiving Roderick throughthe lense of his own condition or whether the
narratoris being affected by whatever it is that affects Roderick.The
languageof sensationthroughoutthe talesuggestsanintimateconnection
of the mentalandthe physicalwithoutallowingfor conclusionsaboutthe
directionof causeandeffect;thislanguagein fact intensifiesthepresumptionof connectionfamiliarin Lockeanpsychology,whilea distinguishing
markof Kantianand post-Kantianidealismis the conceptionof the mind
as havingpowers apartfrom and transcendingsensation.
The narrator'sinitialdiscussionof transcendence("that... poetic

sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest

naturalimages of the desolateor terrible"[273])providesa linkbetween

him and the alien Roderick,who, in the traditionof his family, has a
singulartemperamentwhichmightbe describedastranscendental.
very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar
sensibilityof temperament,displayingitself, throughlong ages, in many
worksof exaltedart,andmanifested,of late,in repeateddeeds of munificent yet unobtrusivecharity,as well as in a passionatedevotion to the
intricacies,perhapseven more thanto the orthodoxand easilyrecognizable beauties,of musicalscience"(275).The family'ssensibilitymanifests
itself on the plane of the Beautiful,Good, and True, as if risingabove
Roderickhimself is associatedwith the abstract,atemporal,and
ideal.Roderick'sworldis one of abstractpatterninblack,white,andgray.
His art works remarkablyanticipatethe abstractmovementsin poetry,
music, and painting. He himself is a man of ideality, as the narrator
remarks,and as shown in phrenologicalterms by the expanse of his
temples; that is, in the nineteenth-centurycontrastof ideal and real,
Roderick is a person who seeks or perceives the truthbeyond merely
Roderickcommentson his "nervousaffection,"
displayingitself "ina host of unnaturalsensations"and "amorbidacuteness of the senses,"and the narratorspeaks of Roderick's"excitedand
highly distemperedideality,"suggestingthatRoderick'sheightenedand
painfulsensitivityis hismode of contactwiththenoumenal(280).Because
of his peculiarsensitivity,Roderickis "unluth suspendu/ Sitot qu'onle
toucheil resonne"(273).The Romanticaeolianharp,Roderickvibratesto
all motion and change, the whole outward universe." As the man of
heightenedsensitivity,Roderickis exquisitelyconnectedwithmatterand

As Roderickis aligned with the ideal, his twin Madelineis associatedwith thematerialandtemporal-in otherwords,thereal.Madeline
matchesher brother'spallor,but her special markis red-a faint blush
when she is interredand blood on her garmentswhen she emerges, this
matchedby the blood-redlightof the emergentfull moon at the moment
of the destructionof the House of Usher. As female, Madelineseems to
representthe counterto Roderick'stimelessabstraction,blood red being
the token of both life and death.'2She impingeson Roderick'stranscendentalproject,throughhis very mechanismfor contactwith the ideal, his
heightenedsensitivity,for he is tuned, so to speak, especiallyto her, the
twin with whom he'd always had "sympathiesof a scarcelyintelligible
nature"(289).In Roderick'slyricaboutthe palaceof thought,the abstract
and mathematicalharmonyof the ideal kingdom shifts unaccountably
into madness, chaos, terror.Might the elusive cause be life itself, the
proximityof the "feminine"principlein Madeline?
A similarallegoryof Roderick'sfate can be found in his paintings,
which gesturetowardsa transcendenceto be achieved througha movementdownwardintopuresensation,whichitselfgivesway to the extreme
and objectless feeling of terror.The narratoremphasizesthe abstract,
qualitiesof Roderick'spaintings:"Bythe uttersimnon-representational
of his designs,he arrestedand overawed attenthe
tion.If ever mortalpaintedanidea, thatmortalwas RoderickUsher."The
narratoris usingidea here in the Lockeanand eighteenth-centurysense,
thatis, what is givenin perceptionor whatis presentin consciousness,but
there is simultaneouslythe sense of the ideal or mystic, that is, what lies
behind appearancesor phenomena,for Roderick's"pureabstractions"
produce in the narrator"anintensityof intolerableawe, no shadow of
which felt I ever yet in the contemplationof the certainlyglowing yet too
concretereveriesof Fuseli."Thusthe abstractsensoryexperienceseems
to lead to the verge of a transcendentreality,as the idealmanifestsitselfin
the idea and threatensto overwhelmthe consciousnessof the perceiver.
At the sametime, we can see in the leastabstractof Roderick'spaintingsa
representationwhich the narratorcannotyet recognize,for the painting
which presentsa subterranean"vaultor tunnel,"presentsthe real, the
tomb of Madeline.Madelineis Roderick'slast genealogicallinkwith the
House, with the humanbiologicalcondition.The paintingin its "ghastly
andinappropriatesplendour"(283)suggestsRoderick'sfearof Madeline.
In the recessesof Roderick'sspiritis a fear of the recesswhich the womb
and tomb of life. We might say that Rodericktranscendshis horrorof
Madelineand the real not by risingabove but by living throughit.
Roderickfeels himself to be in a strugglefor survivaland fears
both Madeline and the House, which he sees as molding him into its
image.l3As an artistwho mustrely on his heightenedsensitivityto reach
the ideal, Roderickis necessarilyconnected with that real world (real,
however strange) which he would like to transcend;unlike the artistpercipient of Emerson'sNature, Roderick cannot simply use and thus
subsumenatureto makehis own world.In the apocalypticend of the tale,
Roderickis finallyovercome by the naturalworld with which Madeline
has been alignedand is broughtdown into its domainof inorganization,

figuredin the momentin which the re-emergentMadelinefalls"heavily"

(296)upon the personof her brother,and the House of Usher also splits
apartandfallstogether,intothe abyss,thoughin a paradoxtypicalof Poe,
Roderick'sdestructionmay also be that supreme moment of transcendence, of passing from the limited self to the unlimitedwhole, which
Roderickhas been seeking.Thus the intractablematerialsof Roderick's
transcendentalproject,includingMadeline,areabsolutelynecessaryto its
In "Ligeia,"Poe's favorite and most frequentlyrevised tale, the
search for transcendentaltruth,explicit on the part of the narrator,is
renderedas an even more complex abyssalprocessthanis the simultaneous rise and fall of sentiencein "Usher."This tale begins not only in the
aftermathof extraordinaryexperience-experience which promises to
reveal the originor groundof life itself-but begins indeed in the narrator'sforgetfulnessof the originof thisexperience.This absencegives rise
to a processof invocationdesignedto restorethe lostorigin.The structure
of the tale is thus a paradoxicalinfolding: forward motion is always
motionbackwardto that originwhich is anticipated.
ThoughLigeiawas everythingto the narrator,he beginshis tale,"I
cannot,for my soul,rememberhow, when, or even preciselywhere,I first
became acquaintedwith the lady Ligeia" (II, 248). The narratorcan
account for this blank in memory only by the gradualnessof Ligeia's
influenceon him, the work of slow time, an influencematched-or really
reversed-by the decomposingeffects of time in the place in which the
narratorthinkshe met this spectralwoman-"some large, old, decaying
city by the Rhine."Ligeia'sfamily, too, the narratorthinksmustbe "of a
remotely ancientdate,"in otherwords an originalfamily, yet he cannot
rememberor perhapsnever knew her family name, that markerof her
identityand origin.'4The narratorhaslostallsightandmemoryof origins.
By rehearsinghisforgetfulness(by writing,ashe says),thenarrator
begins to recollect Ligeia. He indeed re-calls her, for she re-emerges
through the music of her name: "it is by that sweet word alone-by
Ligeia-that I bringbefore mine eyes in fancy the image of herwho is no
more"(249).5 The Ligeiawhose imageis calledup-the livingLigeia-is
a decidedly spectralpresence, an "emaciated"woman who "cameand
departed as a shadow,"whose beauty had "theradianceof an opiumdream ... wildly divine" (249). The narrator'swork of calling up this
specter involves those "studiesof a naturemore thanall else adapted to
deaden impressionsof the outwardworld"and would seem to replicate
the circumstancesof Ligeia'searlierpresence, as the narratorrecalls,"I
was never made aware of her entranceinto my closed study save by the
dear music of her low sweet voice, as she placed her marblehand upon
my shoulder"(249). He has returnedto the study and to those studies
which are the putativescene of Ligeia'sinfluence.
The attemptto recallLigeiaat the beginningof the tale-the work
of recollectionwhich does not quite produce origins-is similarto the
narrator'sexperienceof Ligeia, who led him to the very verge of transcendental truth. Through Ligeia's mediation, or through Ligeia as a
medium,the narrator"did... feel... thatdeliciousvistaby slow degrees

expandingbefore me, down whose long, gorgeous,and all untrodden

path,I mightat lengthpass onwardto the goal of a wisdom too divinely
preciousnot to be forbidden!"(254)Againin the narrator'srecollection
Ligeiais the medium-the presence,the voice, the light-through which
the narratoris virtuallyelevated to the apprehensionof the transcendental: "Her presence, her readings alone, rendered vividly luminousthe
many mysteriesof the transcendentalismin which we were immersed.
Wantingthe radiantlustreof her eyes, letters,lambentand golden, grew
duller than Saturnianlead" (254). Ligeia is a medium in an even more
powerful sense thanthis, for the narratorseems to apprehendthe transcendentalnot merelythroughLigeiabutin Ligeia:"Theexpressionof the
eyes of Ligeia!How for long hourshave I pondereduponit! ... Whatwas
it-that somethingmore profoundthanthe well of Democritus-which
lay far withinthe pupils of my beloved?"He can go to the brinkof this
well but not-yet-down: "inour endeavorsto recallto memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselvesupon the very verge of
remembrance,without being able, in the end, to remember.And thus
how frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligeia's eyes, have I felt
approachingthe full knowledge of theirexpression-felt it approaching
-yet not quite be mine-and so at lengthentirelydepart!"(251-2)
Democritusis said to have said thattruthis in the depths.Whatis
that something more profound than the deeper truthof the father of
atomism?The deep truthexpressedin Ligeia'seyes is clearlytranscendental truth, here the origin and ground of life forms, for in an echo of
Emerson'sNature,the narrator"found,in the commonestobjects of the
universe, a circle of analogies to that expression"(252). The narrator
associatesthisprofoundsomethingwiththe mysteriesandpower of God's
will-again, the originand groundof life-in that non-existentpassage
from Glanvillcited by the narratorand by Ligeia(andfinally,by way of
epigraph,by Poe).16
What is structurallyand thematicallysignificanthere is that the
narratorbegins by meditatingon all thathe has forgottenabout Ligeia's
origins,therebyrecallingand recreatinghis experienceof Ligeia,whose
presence,in turn,seems-or seemed-to offer the narratoran apprehension of the originor groundor principleof life. And the narratorequates
thisnearapprehensionwith not quite remembering,bringingus back to
the beginning of the tale-in the same sort of circularmotion which
characterizesand baffles humanendeavorin Ligeia'spoem, "TheConquerorWorm,"which in its turn gesturestoward a God or originating
force which can never be apprehendedon the level of appearance.
Ligeiastrugglesto conquerthe wormof deaththroughthe force of
her will; with her "giganticvolition"she mimes that God who is "buta
greatwill pervadingallthingsby natureof its intentness"(253).Therecan
be only one God, and Ligeiawould seem to be a usurpingdaughterof her
"DivineFather"(257). But the strugglefor ascendancycould as well be
describedas takingplace between Ligeiaand the narrator,who in their
extremeisolationcomprisea world unto themselves.Each strugglesfor
complete knowledgeand possessionof the other.The aspect of passionate antagonismbetween the two intellectuallovers is markedby their

preoccupationwith the strengthof the will and by the narrator'sstruggle

"to fathom"and "passionto discover"the meaningexpressedin Ligeia's
eyes. The narratorcomesclosestto apprehendingandpossessingLigeiain
herdeath:"Butin deathonlywas I fullyimpressedwith the strengthof her
Full knowledge of the otherwould mean a divinizationof the self
and the obliterationof the other,yet the isolatedself cannotexistwithout
thatotherin which and againstwhich to see itself. And so the narratoris
distraughtafterthe deathof Ligeiaanddescendsintothat"mentalalienation"whichmatchesthe dramaof Ligeia'spoem-"much of Madnessand
more of Sin / And Horrorthe soul of the plot"(259,257). He marriesthe
Lady Rowena only, it would seem, to intensify his longing for Ligeia.
Now the maddened narratorplays God, so to speak, and arrangesthe
horriddramaof Rowena'sartificiallyanimatedsurroundings.Rowena's
name, as ClaudeRichardpointsout, meanswhat is left over.17She is the
matterthroughwhichthe strugglebetween Ligeiaandthenarratorcanbe
replayed.Asthenarratortormentshissecondbride,he "call[s]aloudupon
[Ligeia's]name"in an effort to "restore"her (261).To the narrator,the
artificial animationof the bridal chamber, really a torture chamber,
begins to seem like realanimation,as he sensessomethingcoming (back)
to life. Thisis of courseLigeiaas figuredfinallyin "theeyes of the figure
which stood before me" (268).
Ligeia'sinfluenceon the narrator's
not been a new conceptionbut, as the narratorsays,a new "sentiment,"
new feeling, arousedinitiallyby the expressionof her eyes (252).Feeling
takesover the traditionalfunctionof reasonor spirit,and the movement
downwardintosensationbecomes the groundof transcendence,a ground
which itself will crackto expose a lower depth. In his awakenedsensitivity, the narratoris finally full impressedwith the expressionof Ligeia's
eyes, thatforce which, he imagines,lies behindall materialappearances,
and so all else but the expressionfalls away, as the narratorhimself is
overcomewith terror.The momentof transcendenceis againfiguredas a
downward motion, the descent into the bottomlesswell, into the pit of
The narratorof "Ligeia,"narratingand recastinghis past, would
seem to live in pulsationsof recollection, collapse, and recollectionmuchlike the pulsatinguniversePoe would laterdescribein Eureka.The
narratorrecalls Ligeia'seyes as the origin of his experience,just as he
regards them as the key to the origin of life forms, yet his experience
properlyhasno originand can only be repeated.Mightwe say, then,that
in "Ligeia"the projected repetitionof the transcendentexperience of
collapseis a mirrorof the originwhich vanishes?
I would like to conclude by shiftingslightly my perspective on
transcendencein "Ligeia."Ligeia'scommentaryon the searchfor transcendentaltruthis her poem about "the tragedy 'Man."'Curiously,the
most prominent features of this drama of aspirationand failure are
mimicryand mechanicalcontrivance.God is representedby mimes,and
humansare "Merepuppets,"but power itself is "formless,""invisible,"

In the first movement of the narrative, Ligeia's presence and the

creative power of her voice produce an alchemical transformation, turning lead or dead letters "lambent and golden" (254). Still, Ligeia seems to
fail at miming God, and when the focus of the narrative shifts from
Ligeia's power to the narrator's, mimicry and mechanical contrivance
become prominent again, as the narratoruses Rowena to recall Ligeia. He
exchanges his gold for Rowena, and his manipulations-to terrorize his
second bride and to bring back Ligeia's spirit through the deadened or
leaden body of Rowena-are highly mechanical. Despite the pentagonal
room, traditionally the space of magic, and many hints of ancient occult
arts, the setting seems to be mere machinery, as in that "contrivance"
which makes the simple arabesque figures into "an endless succession of
the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise
in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly
heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of
wind behind the draperies-giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the
whole" (260-1). This machinery for producing effects is equivalent to
literary parody (the letter without the spirit) and suggests how thin the line
was for Poe between, on the one hand, the search for transcendental truth
(the mystic, the ideal, in the terms of the Drake-Halleck review) and on
the other hand, a contrivance, a game, a joke, a parody, even a selfparody. And even "Ligeia,"the author's favorite among his works and a
tale whose occult significance Poe endorsed, was not spared mechanical
conversion, for it is thoroughly parodied in Poe's story "The Man That
Was Used Up."18
San Francisco State University

1. Though Newton came close to eliminatingoccult force from the scientific
model in his propositionthat first causes cannot be known-"hypotheses
non fingo"-his descriptions of gravity and of ether parallel the occult
forces of scholasticism,and throughoutthe eighteenth century the line
between occult force and demystified naturalphilosophy was quite fine
indeed, for educatedlay personsas well as for scientists.Further,Newton's
optics, which pictured nature as a system of transmutations,resisted a
2. This view of Edwards, enshrinedin modern scholarshipby PerryMiller's
JonathanEdwards (New York,1949),has been significantlyalteredby the
recent work of Norman Fiering, especially Jonathan Edwards's Moral
Thoughtand Its BritishContext (ChapelHill:Universityof NorthCarolina
Press, 1981); see also Fiering, Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century
Harvard:A Discipline in Transition(Chapel Hill: University of North
CarolinaPress, 1981);David Laurence,"JonathanEdwards, John Locke,
and the Canon of Experience,"EarlyAmericanLiterature,15 (1980), 10723;Laurence,"MoralPhilosophyand New EnglandHistory:Reflectionson
Norman Fiering,"Early AmericanLiterature,18 (1983), 187-214.Though
Miller'sanalysisof Edwards'stheology may be seriouslyin error,it remains

importantfor intellectualhistoryand literaryhistoryto note thatEdwards's

successorsdid indeed associatehim with the new psychology.
3. See James E. Cronin, Introduction,The Diary of Elihu Hubbard Smith
(1771-1798),ed. Cronin (Philadelphia:American PhilosophicalSociety,
4. For a samplingof thisliterature,see The Transcendentalists:
ed. PerryMiller(Cambridge:HarvardUniversityPress,1950).The reaction
againstLocke was sharpestamong the Transcendentalists,who objected to
the atomism,materialism,andmerereasonablenessof Lockeanempiricism;
their search for spiritualrenewal was expressed in terms of connection,
process,development,and was sustainedby a set of conceptionswhich had
coexisted with empiricism in complex ways throughoutthe Enlightenment-ideas of organicism,reformulationsof notions of the connectionof
microcosm and macrocosm, a modernized hermeticnotion of the divine
mindradiatingthroughoutcreation,and a conceptionof occult force underlying the empiricalsurfaceof things.
5. Nature,in Selectionsfrom RalphWaldoEmerson,ed. StephenE. Whicher
(Boston:HoughtonMifflinCompany, 1960),p. 22.
6. In The Tower and the Abyss:An Inquiryinto the Transformationof Man
(1957; rpt. New York:Viking Press, 1967), Erich Kahlertraces the new
emphasis on perceptual experience in French Romanticismand Symbolism, leading to what he also terms a transcendencedownward;this development culminates,Kahlereloquently argues,in Sartre'sLa Nausee, with
the "decompositionof the substance of our phenomenalworld" (p. 176).
(One mightadd to Kahler'sliteraryhistorythe singularimportanceof Poe to
several of the French Romantics and Symbolists.) See also David H.
Hirsch'sfine essay, "The Pit and the Apocalypse,"Sewanee Review, 76
7. "The Fall of the House of Usher,"in The Complete Worksof Edgar Allan
Poe, ed. James A. Harrison,17 vols. (New York:Thomas Y. Crowell &
Company, 1902),III, 273.
8. Works,VIII, 275-318.
9. On Poe'suses of alchemy, see JeanRicardou,"L'Ordu scarabee,"Pourune
theorie du Nouveau Roman (Paris:Editions du Seuil, 1971), pp. 40-58;
BartonLevi St. Armand,"Poe's'SoberMystification':The Uses of Alchemy
in 'The Gold-Bug,"' Poe Studies, 4 (1971), 1-7; St. Armand, "Usher
Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysicof Gnosticism,"Poe Studies,5 (1972),
1-8;Claude Richard,"'L'ou l'indicibilitede Dieu: une lecture de 'Ligeia,"'
Delta, 12 (1981),11-34.Poe'sknowledge of alchemycame froma numberof
sources-encyclopedias, journals,and suchpopularworksas IsaacD'Israeli's Curiositiesof Literature(with a note on "alchymy"in vol. I) and Godwin's St. Leon, a moralizednovel about a man who learnsthe secret of the
magnumopus, the transmutationof metalsand the elixirvitae. (Theselatter
two worksPoe mentionsin his journalism.)I also thinkPoe was acquainted
with the serious literatureof hermeticism:among the recherchebooks in
Roderick's library is "the Chiromancy of Robert Flud [sic]" (287); the
seventeenth-centuryFludd was best known for his work on alchemy.
Hawthorne'sand Melville'sdescriptionsof the mystic symbol also
draw on the imagery of alchemy and may indeed owe something to the
work of their confrere in the house of letters, the late Edgar Poe. The
narratorof The ScarletLetter describes his reaction to finding the rag or
remnantof the scarletletter with its tracesof gold embroidery:"Certainly,
there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation,and
which, as it were, streamedforthfrom the mystic symbol, subtlycommuni27

eatingitself to my sensibilities,but evading the analysisof my mind"("The

Custom-House").Hester has worked gold into the dross, the cloth, transforming the originalletter throughthis act of self-expression,as she transforms it throughher living. Her example of the feminine art parallelsthe
moreobviouslyoccultpracticesof the learnedRogerChillingworth;though
Chillingworthuseshisknowledge to tormentDimmesdale,hisstudieswere
aimedat healing,as he saysto Hester,"Myold studiesin alchemy... andmy
sojourn,for above a year past, among a people well versed in the kindly
propertiesof simples,have made a better physicianof me thanmany who
claim the medical degree" (Chapt. 4). In giving expressionto the mere
remnantor letter of the story by looking into the interiorof hearts,Hawthorne combines the expressiveart of Hester with the sympatheticart of
Chillingworth;he becomes the artistwhose letterslive. As the narratorsays
of himself, the failed artistin the house of custom, if he could look through
the common life to its "deeper import"he would find "the letters turnto
gold upon the page" ("TheCustom-House").The "mysticsign"of MobyDick is the famouswhitenessof the whale, the terrorof which,Ishmaelsays,
would be apprehendedby the manof "untutoredideality"(Chapt.42);this
whiteness is associated with that other sign and talisman of the white
whale-the gold doubloon.
10. For a more conventionalrendering of the contrast of real and ideal, a
contrastwhich runsthroughnineteenth-centuryAmericanliterature,see the
descriptionof AugustineSt. Clare'slife and characterin Chapt.5 of Uncle
Tom'sCabin.My discussionof realand ideal drawson my note on "Usher,"
The Explicator(forthcoming).
11. A precedentfor the Romanticimage of the aeolianharpmight be the view
of the CambridgephilosopherHenry More that space is the sensoriumof
God, which influencedNewton and others.
12. In "TheMasqueof the Red Death,"the maskedfigureof the Red Death has
a similar role, bringing time back to consciousnessto obliterate Prince
13. This struggle is limned by Roderick'sterrific apprehensionsand by his
summoningthe narrator-metaphoricallyor literallyto break the connection Roderickhas to Madelineand the House. It is also figuredforthby the
transferof luminosityfrom Roderickto Madelineand the House, for when
the luminousnessof Roderick'seyes-the light or fire of life-is extinguished, this force intensifiesin Madelineand in the House, until the life
force, except in the narrator,is spent.
14. The nineteenth-centurylanguageof racesuggeststhatLigeia,who is "notof
our own race"(251), is of the "race"of the Jews and hence genuinelyfrom
the most ancientfamily.ThatLigeia,with darkhairand eyes, is pairedwith
the fair-and English-Lady Rowenaof courserecallsScot'srivalheroines
in Ivanhoe, the Jewish Rebecca and the Saxon Rowena, a furtherhint of
Ligeia'sforeign and ancientlineage.
15. Poe had already in "Al Aaraaf"given the name Ligeia to the personified
spiritof music, recallingperhapsthe sirenLigea in Milton'sComus.
16. Though no scholarhas found Glanvill'sstatementabout the power of the
will, in "Descentinto the Maelstrom"Poe paraphrasesthe following related
passagefrom Glanvill'sEssayson SeveralImportantSubjectsin Philosophy
and Religion (1676):"Theways of God in Nature(asin Providence)arenot
as oursare:Nor arethe Modelsthatwe frameanyway commensurateto the
vastnessand profundityof his works;which have a depth in them greater
than the Well of Democritus."
17. Richard,"'L'ou l'indicibilitede Dieu."

18. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, 2 vols., 2nd ed.
(New York:GordianPress,Inc., 1966),I, 117-9;oi Poe'sparodying"Ligeia"
see G. R. Thompson, Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales
(Madison:Universityof WisconsinPress,1973),pp. 83-5,EvanCarton,The
Rhetoricof AmericanRomance:Dialecticand Identityin Emerson,Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne(Baltimore:The JohnsHopkinsUniversityPress,
1985),pp. 144-5.
I am gratefulto WilliamH. MarksIII for his criticismof a draft of this

AAS/NEMLA Fellowship
The American AntiquarianSociety and NEMLA offer a short-term
fellowship limited to research in American literary studies through 1876.
The winner of the AAS/NEMLA fellowship for 1988 is Shirley Samuels,
an assistant professor of English at Cornell University. Her research
project is entitled "Politics and the Family in the Early Republic." Professor Samuels holds the AB, MA, and PhD degrees from the University of
California, Berkeley. For her project, part of a book-in-progress, she will
make use of the facilities of the AAS during the term of her fellowship,
September-November, 1988. NEMLA members interested in this fellowship should write for information to the American Antiquarian Society,
185 Salisbury Street, Worcester, MA. 01609.