Lecture Notes for Edgar Allan Poe

When students think of Edgar Allan Poe, most remember his chilling tales of strange supernatural events (for example, "The Fall of the House of Usher" or "Ligeia") and his stories that provide a glimpse into the mind of the insane (such as, "The Black Cat" or the "Tell Tale Heart").  Most, however, don't think of terms like "Romantic" or even "gothic" without some prompting.  That's because Poe was so successful at what he did -- creating original tales with a lasting effect.  Indeed, in his view, the importance of those two characteristics could not be overestimated.  

In his essay entitled "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe clearly outlines the creation of one of his most popular works, "The Raven."  Critics have long argued about whether Poe truthfully related his creative process or reworked it to make his point about poetry.  Regardless of his methodology, "Philosophy" presents several rules of thumb that Poe obviously followed in much of his creative writing.   

1)  The importance of originality and effect

2)  A work should be brief enough "to read at one sitting" (1573).

3)  "Melancholy is the most legitimate of all the poetical tones" (1575).

4)  "The death then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world -- and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited . . . are those of a bereaved lover" (1576).

5)  "Circumscription of space" creates a sense of isolation that connected the work in isolation; "it has the force of a frame to a picture" (1577).


"Annabel Lee" ( a poem that many critics suggest was inspired by the death of Poe's wife, Virginia) obviously fits all of the criteria established by Poe in "Philosophy."  Only 41 lines long, the poem is brief enough to be read in one sitting.  The topic is suitably melancholy as it deals with the death of a beautiful, beloved woman told from the perspective of her desolate lover.  The setting creates a portrait effect as the angels swoop through heaven and the sea beats against the beach while the narrator remains alone by the grave of his beloved Annabel Lee. 

Annabel Lee and her relationship with the narrator is set up as an ideal.  She "lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by [the narrator]" (5 - 6), and these children experienced emotions beyond the understanding of most adults "who were older than we / . . . far wiser than we" (28 - 29) as they "loved with a love that was more than love" (9). This relationship only ends because of the jealous interference of the angles who were "not so happy in heaven" (21) and sent a "chilling and killing" wind (26) to separate the young lovers.    It's interesting, however, that love itself isolates the couple from the rest of the world; the power of their bond makes them unique in a world filled with adults who don't understand and angels who kill out of spite. 

The poem ends with a melancholy connection that survives

     the supernatural powers of heaven and hell:  "And neither the angels in heaven above / Nor the demons down under the sea / Can ever dissever my soul from the soul / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee" (30 -33);

     the forces of nature:  "For the moon never beams, without bringing me dream / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee / And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee" (34 - 37);

     and even death itself as the mourning lover lies "down by the side / Of [his] darling . . . [his] life and [his] bride / In her sepulchered there by the sea / In her tomb by the sounding sea" (38 - 41). 

"Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher"

These two stories also deal with  Poe's favorite melancholy topic:  the death of a beautiful woman, and although critics agree that the deaths of Ligeia and Madeline Usher are not the focal points of their respective stories, it is clear that without the deaths of these women, there would likely be no story. 





NARRATOR:  the bereaved husband

As his tale progresses, the reader is informed that he  is "a bounden slave in the trammels of opium" whose very life "had taken a colouring from [his] dreams" (1503). 


  NARRATOR:  an old boyhood friend of Roderick Usher's

He visits Usher after he receives a letter pleading for his presence as "his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of [his] society, some alleviation of [Roderick's] malady" (1509).  

THE WOMAN IN LIFE:  a woman beyond other women.  She is characterized as being physically beautiful without following the established norms of beauty.  The narrator can't fully explain what made Ligeia beautiful, but he provides a vivid description of every detail.  Notice his focus on her eyes:  "They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our race . . . in moments of intense excitement . . . this peculiarity became more than slightly noticeable in Ligeia.  And at such moments was her beauty . . . the beauty of beings either above or apart from the earth" (1500). 

Her intellect "was immense" and the narrator makes it clear that his wife surpassed him in all things intellectual.  He was "sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign [himself], with a childlike confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation" (1502). 

Her emotional capacity made her the "most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion" and was always indicated by changes in her eyes, the eyes that alternately "delighted and appalled" the narrator (1501- 02).  The "intensity of her affection" demonstrates a "more than womanly abandonment to a love" (1503).

IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT LIGEIA:  She is dead for most of the story, but she never leaves the forefront because her importance as a character is determined by the narrator's reactions to her, both in life and in death. 


  THE WOMAN IN LIFE:    She is the "tenderly beloved sister; [Usher's] sole companion for long years -- his last and only relative on earth" (1512).  Usher is aware the her impending death will leave him "the last of  the ancient race of the Ushers." As the narrator glimpses the lady Madeline, he is struck by her resemblance to Roderick; "[h]er figure, her air, her features -- all in their  very minutest development were those -- were identically . . . those of  . . Roderick Usher" (1512 - 1513). 

Madeline's mysterious, unnamed disease has been diagnosed over the years as everything ranging from tuberculosis to poisoning to vampirism,  but the fact remains that she is wasting away before the horrified eyes of her brother.  And the narrator now also bears the burden of witnessing not just her death but the effect that her death will have on his friend, Roderick Usher. 

IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT MADELINE:  The lady Madeline only appears in the story twice, but her life (and death) permeate the entire story because of the impact that she has on her brother.


THE STORY BEFORE LIGEIA'S DEATH:  Our narrator's story begins and ends with Ligeia.  In the opening, she is dead, and we are taken through the unconventional courtship (he does not remember her family name or anything about her background) and marriage (she teaches her husband as his intellectual superior in direct opposition of conventional gender roles) to Ligeia's death.  When she grows ill and evidences a "wild desire for life" (1502), the narrator is both excited and horrified at her display of a "giant will" to live that finally succumbs to "a power more stern" (1503). 

Ligeia dies, and her husband is "crushed into the very dust with sorrow" (1503).

  THE STORY BEFORE MADELINE'S DEATH:  Our narrator's story focuses on Roderick Usher and his temperament initially.  The man himself is described as "remarkable" with great detail paid to Roderick's complexion, eyes, lips, bone structure, and hair.  He is described as romantically as any heroine could ever hope to be.  But the narrator quickly realizes that Roderick's change is not merely the result of a physical ailment as he notices the "excessive nervous agitation" of his old friend (1511).  Roderick is said to suffer from a "morbid acuteness of the senses" and can therefore only eat special foods, listen to certain sounds, and wear clothes made of specific materials.   The narrator diagnoses him as a hypochondriac "enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and from which, for many years, he had never ventured forth" (1512).

Madeline dies, and Roderick insists upon keeping her corpse for two weeks before interring it in a vault under the family home.

REACTION TO LIGEIA'S DEATH:  After the initial grief, the narrator marries Lady Rowena, a woman as physically and intellectually different from Ligeia as possible.  But this marriage is not an attempt to forget the past in a new love because he tells the reader that he "loathed [Lady Rowena] with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man" (1505).  And memories of Ligeia often overcome his opium-clouded mind

Rowena's illness is sudden and seems to hint at a haunting when she hears noises and sees movement where there are none.   The narrator also sees and hears unexplainable things (such as the apparent poisoning of Lady Rowena's wine by an unseen hand), but within the context of his opium addiction, the reader is left to wonder if he sees reality or a dream.  

Lady Rowena dies.  She lives.  She dies again.  She lives.  She dies. She lives.  And throughout it all, her husband stands by her bed, thinking of the woman that he loved and lost before her. 

  REACTION TO MADELINE'S DEATH:  Roderick's entire countenance changes as if "his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with an oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage" (1517).  He stares into space and has "a mad hilarity in his eyes" (1518). 

The narrator tries to provide Roderick with a solid link to reality through his presence to keep his friend from slipping further into madness, but eventually, even the stolid narrator is forced to accept that things may not always follow the rules of logic. 

THE RESURRECTION:  "The corpse, I repeat stirred, and now more vigorously than before . . . And now the eyes opened of the figure which stood before me.  'Here then at least,' [the narrator] shrieked aloud, can I never -- can I never be mistaken -- these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes of the lady -- of the lady Ligeia!'" (1507 - 1508).   And on this note, the story ends, leaving the reader to decide what has happened.    THE RESURRECTION:  "[T]here did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.  There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame" (1521).  She then falls to the floor, taking her dead brother with her.  This could easily be the end, but Poe has a further point to make.  As the narrator flees from the Usher home, he looks back and see the literal house of Usher split and sink into the tarn.

In both stories, setting plays an important role.  In "Ligeia," setting becomes important in the detailed description of the bridal chamber of the Lady Rowena with its heavy, dark furnishings and draperies.  This is not appropriate for a bride, but it works well as a resurrection chamber.  In "The Fall of the House of Usher" the house itself reflects Roderick Usher's physical  (mental and moral?) decay.  The house is old, the furniture is uncomfortable and faded, and the home bears a "barely perceptible fissure" as it rests in the middle of the "sullen waters of the tarn" (1510).

The critical approach to these two works are as numerous as they are fascinating , but just to give you an idea of the scope of scholarship . . . .

Many scholars suggest that Poe could only allow Ligeia to live if she paid the price for her superiority through death.  Theorists suggest that the only women Poe felt truly comfortable with were dead ones!  Critics look at the relationship between the narrator and Ligeia and question his love for her in light of the reversed power structure of their marriage.  I've read pieces that suggest that the narrator killed both wives and others that propose that Ligeia, Rowena, the deaths, and the resurrection (or a combination of these factors) were solely the result of the narrator's opium use. 

Scholars have read "Usher" as a tale of incest (Roderick and Madeline as the results of years of intermarriage to keep the bloodlines pure), as a story of vampirism (Madeline becomes the vampire first, and then she preys on her brother until the final scene where she kills him), and as a warning of the dangers of encouraging a super-educated, super-sensitive aristocracy. 


"The Masque of the Red Death" is often called Poe's strongest piece of short fiction because he begins with an effect and continues with it throughout the story without the distraction of character development.  He establishes time and place in a very general fashion; there is a prince, a plague, and a "castellated" abbey in the country where Prince Prospero and a thousand of his closest friends isolate themselves to avoid the sickness that ravages the countryside (1542).                       
Recall that effect and "circumscription of space" were two of Poe's characteristics required of good writing.  The space involved in "The Masque of the Red Death" is very limited because Prospero and his friends are sealed into the abbey as a means of protection from the "Red Death." 
Prospero's festivities assume a grand scale but are overshadowed as Poe spends more time describing the rooms than the party itself.  Seven rooms "so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time" (1542) -- even within the solitude of the Prince's self-imposed seclusion lies further isolation!  Critics have theorized about the symbolic nature of the individually colored rooms, but everyone agrees that the final room is the most important to the story.  It looks differently (its tapestries and stained glass do not match), and in it rests the ebony clock that chimes on the hour, making "even the giddiest [grow} pale . . . the more aged and sedate [pass] their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation" (1543).  It's unclear which aspect of the seventh room causes the most fear:  the black hangings, the blood-red stained glass, or the ebony clock.  Regardless, the effect is achieved and maintained. 
The presence of the unknown mummer dressed as the "Red Death" claims the attention of the crowds as the ebony clock strikes midnight, (again, notice Poe's attention to effect) and Prince Prospero is immediately angry that someone has interrupted the party "to make a mockery of [their] woes" (1545).  He calls for his courtiers to apprehend the man, but everyone is frozen with a "deadly terror that had seized upon them all" (1545), leaving the prince to take action himself.  Prospero rushes forward with a drawn dagger, there is a cry, and Prince Prospero falls to the carpet atop the dagger.  In the midst of the confusion, one thing is clear; there is no murderer to punish -- the costume is found to house no "tangible form" (1546). 
And thus Poe concludes his tale:  "And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.  He had come like a thief in the night.  And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.  And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.  And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" (1546).  Without overt preaching, Poe's point is made, his effect has achieved its affect.  Man cannot defeat death because it has "illimitable dominion over all."