“Much of Madness and More of Sin” – Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” (1838)
“Ligeia”, the earliest selection presented here, remains the most arresting example of the eros contained within Victorian speculative fiction. Poe’s career coincided with the start of Victoria’s reign. What modern readers now regard as Victorian was still fresh material – the overheated atmosphere, replete with gothic and far eastern touches, the consumptive woman’s eroticized death – Poe has started these tropes years before they became stereotypical.
In keeping with the mysterious nature of the Lady Ligeia herself, Poe’s story opens with a notable amount of lacunae. In the first paragraph, his narrator states three separate times that he doesn’t recall key details about his lover:
“I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia….Of her family, I have surely herd her speak. That it is of a remotely ancient date cannot be doubted…And now, while I write, a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my bethrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom.” (Poe)
Poe, ever in pursuit of the singular effect, certainly didn’t need to waste time with creating a genealogy for his character. Nor are such mundane details important – the entire story is about mystical fervid effects, not world-building. Poe doesn’t need to make Ligeia plausible – she just has to be memorable.
Ligeia may just as easily be considered a tale of the eye as a spooky adventure in resurrection or hallucinations brought on by grief. The second and third paragraphs of the story are obsessive and strongly visual. We know every dimension of Ligeia’s looks down to the exact shape of her nostrils,
“I looked at the delicate outlines of the nose – and nowhere bu tin the graceful medallions of the Hebrews had I beheld a similar perfection. There were the same luxurious smoothness of surface, the same scarecely perceptible tendency to the aquiline, the same harmoniously curved nostrils speaking the free spirit” (Poe)
Then these passages are followed by one of the most obsessive in all of Poe’s corpus, the description of Ligeia’s eyes.
“And then I peered into the large eves of Ligeia.
For eyes we have no models in the remotely antique. It might have been, too, that in these eves of my beloved lay the secret to which Lord Verulam alludes. They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad. Yet it was only at intervals –in moments of intense excitement –that this peculiarity became more than slightly noticeable in Ligeia. And at such moments was her beauty –in my heated fancy thus it appeared perhaps –the beauty of beings either above or apart from the earth –the beauty of the fabulous Houri of the Turk. . . . Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.” (Poe)
In all of Poe’s work, this fetishistic devotion to a woman’s organs is rivalled only in “Berenice”. But while the narrator in “Berenice” is intent on robbing a woman of her teeth, and all the psychological implications contained therein, this narrator is fixated on his lady’s eyes. What is the fascination of Ligeia’s eyes?
The symbolism of the human eye as it is featured in horror literature like Poe’s invokes (naturally) spectacle. For one, the eye and the sense it offers is the most cerebral of all the bodily senses, and the easiest to invoke in literature. The entire transaction of written texts is mediated through the eye – the writer watching his or her words appear, the editor inspecting them, to the reader eagerly devouring them. It is also one of the most telling organs – many of the micro expressions that reveal mood are formed by the muscles and tissues that surround the eye. Poe had more than enough symbolic territory to draw upon to create Ligeia’s most notable feature. Are there any other reasons he might have focused so much on the character’s eyes?
Remember this bit: “They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad”. Note the Victorian cultural imperialism and casual delineations of race contained in that small line alone – “the ordinary eyes of our own race” refers to a caucasian esthetic, reminding the reader that the demographics commonly empowered to write, publish, and read in the 19th century were mostly white. “Our own race” may also mean the human species, assuming a default whiteness the way “man” was synecdoche for humanity for much of human history.
Furthermore, “Ligeia” is one of the most visual selections of a highly visual writer’s work. The spectacle at the root of science fiction or (more accurately) speculative fiction is at once literal and symbolic. Speculative fiction quite literally attempts to “see” what would happen if something fundamental about reality were changed. More popularly, science fiction (a subgenre of speculative fiction) would develop into a massive genre of its own right, populated with amazing visuals, most notably the spectacles of starships and alien races in later decades. But at the time Poe was writing, all that was in its infancy. His project here wasn’t science fiction or horror per se, it was spectacle. Poe himself built theories of the short story, and it was the singular effect that was the keystone of these structures. The singular effect of “Ligeia” still reaches readers a century and half later.
There is a third dimension we must examine, another layer of nuance contained within the infamous gaze of Ligeia. The 19th century saw not just scientific enthusiasm, but also the rise of a more formal Spiritualism. Metaphysical inquiry was nothing new – it was an accepted part of science well through the 18th century. But the Victorians took the existing impulse towards mysticism, and the cult of sensibility from the century previous, and created entirely new cultures of spiritualism.
“The many incomprehensible anomalies in the science of mind” – 19thc Spiritualism and Ligeia
The language and esthetic of science gave this field of inquiry a legitimate veneer. Many respected and rigorous intellects in this century fully accepted some or all of the ideas contained within spiritualism: ghosts, seances, telekinesis, revivification, and so on. Vitalism, the belief that living organisms were special as they had a spiritual element inherent to them, was still in its prime by the time Poe was publishing. Given his tendency towards extravagant grief, as well as his cultural prowess, it is not surprising vitalism would become a recurring theme in his work.
The spiritualist, to successfully ply his or her trade, had to market the idea of sensibility. They had to appear to be in tune with forces, worlds, and beings not readily available to the common person with their dull senses and mundane concerns. The spiritualist was literally supposed to “See beyond”, in yet another layer of obsessive spectacle in the Victorian age.
This is a direct outgrowth of the ideal poet, for example, poetry in the 18th century – the poet had to be nearly preternatural in his (and it was always a “he”) apprehension of the world around him. He had to be not so much a person as a conduit for the genius of the universe to flow through. Poe’s narrator is preoccupied with this sensibility. The astute pupil, he is primed to pick up on the energy of his lover/mentor, all symbolized by those unnatural eyes:
I found, in the commonest objects of the universe, a circle of analogies to that expression. I mean to say that, subsequently to the period when Ligeia’s beauty passed into my spirit…I derived from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I always felt aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs. (Poe)
So was the spiritualist in Poe’s day. She or he had to appear to be tapping into something just beyond everyday life. She or her was supposed to be able to read meanings in objects and events, just as Poe’s narrator “read into” things around him. Ligeia, given her arresting looks and manner, as well as her otherworldly connections, is the ideal spiritualist. She is the alchemist in the castle garret, the mystic hermit in the cave, the Delphic oracle wreathed in vapors. She is not a character so much as she is an archetype, as is nearly every woman in Poe’s work.
As for our narrator, he found the same meaning in the natural world he found in Ligeia’s gaze. He describes the fascinations of any Victorian naturalist: insects, specimens, oceans, meteors. The earth and the heavens are full of signs for him to observe and interpret according to his emotions about Ligeia: “And there are one or two stars in heaven – (one especially a star of the sixth magnitude, double and changeable, to be found near the large star in Lyra) – in a telescopic scrutiny of which I have been made aware of the feeling”. (Poe, emphasis mine)
The cult and culture of Science in the 19th century
The culture of science in 19th century UK and US (influenced as the states were by their parent country) was fixated on spectacle of one form or another. Presses and library shelves groaned with the weight of scientific studies, from the hard sciences to anthropology and sociology. Museums, fashioned solely for the eye at this point in history, grew, aided by the peculiar Victorian yen for collecting, and by the same society’s paternalistic drive to edify its masses. No longer were private wunderkammer or university collections the only way to see specimens and samples from far off lands, or the natural world – the temple of the muses was ideally for anyone. These institutions fostered a culture not just of detached observation, but also voyeurism.
This leads us back to the extraordinary eyes of Ligeia. and their effect on Poe’s narrator. This nameless narrator takes on a submissive role in their relationship, but retains an unnerving power through his constant watchfulness. He observes and comes to know intimately her habits, activities, and her death.
Even after Ligiea’s death, the narrator never stops looking for her. Despairing of ever seeing her again, and seemingly bent on continuing her metaphysical experiments, he resorts (unconsciously?) to procuring raw materials. He marries Rowena Tremaine. Excessively confessional in every other regard, the narrator is strangely reticent on his reasons for the second marriage. But what he does describe is his dislike of her, and the overwrought, psychedelic bridal chamber (laboratory) to which he brings her. There are no “wholesome” domestic details here – the entirety of the second marriage is in this suite, which has nothing to do with nuptial bliss.
The circular tower room is not a boudoir so much as it is an altar to the mystic powers Ligeia cultivated. It bears a striking resemblance to the perfumed and arabesque rooms in Hawthorne’s tale: “The walls were hung with gorgeous curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur and grace that no other species of adornment can achieve; and, as they fell from ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite space” (Hawthorne) Dark sacristies of unholy arts, these rooms are also the laboratories of a strange “science”. Rowena’s death and transfiguration if indeed these happened, happened in the midst of this baroque excess. Virginia’s transformation in “The Birthmark” starts in a similarly sensual chamber, although Hawthorne eventually supplies Alymer with a proper laboratory while Poe’s narrator has only that one psychedelic boudoir.
Esthetics and eros in “Ligeia”
Poe’s room, however, is endless visuality. The colors are crazed and clashing, accented with glittering gold; the tapestries are rigged to move with a ventilation system. There is no place the eye can rest and the mind regain sanity. The very daylight itself is altered by the presence of a “leaden pane” (Poe). The garishly colored and moving wall is reminiscent of the torture chamber in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Here, thought, the only torment is the implies psychological abuse of Rowena by the narrator, and the torment he himself undergoes grieving for Ligeia.
What import does the decor in Poe’s story have with the regards to the eros in “Ligeia”? What could the outlandish have to do with the intimate? There is no sex in the tale, save by what may be implied by the presence of a wedding (the consummation of either union is in doubt – the real lover, after all, is the imago of Ligeia). For the 19th century reader, however, the hothouse esthetic of Poe’s tower would have signalled an unwholesome and transgressive sexuality.
All the eastern touches in the story, the lush drapes and the lanterns, invoke white Victorian fantasies about the Middle East. The eroticization of Eastern cultures had been an ongoing project since the 18th century (see Vathek for more of that!) and intensified with the increase of European presence in these regions. The colonial implications of assigning a nefarious sexuality to a colonized area area are clear – throw the sexual and therefore moral character of the conquered people into question, then their conquering is automatically painted as righteous. The European powers could have their cake and bed it too – the bodies of these fetishized eastern peoples were their playground, but the colonizers could still go home to their hallowed shores – and wives. Tales about the voluptuous east could therefore be circulated for titillation and “proof” of the goodness of the colonial project.
The esthetic of eastern objects carried a whiff of this purported sensuality, the way “French” would connote vague sexiness in later decades. The sensual spectacle of lanterns, rugs, and shades allow the reader to at once experience this lushness, and be safely insulated from any latent sexuality in the references. Outlandish decor in a bridal chamber (a room solely dedicated to sex in the minds of many readers) could allow the reader to revel in quasi-erotic stimulation without the burden of having to admit to it.
The denial of the bodily, of erotic realism, is a longstanding (and remains a long lasting) theme in western literature. Poe was a master of this rerouted libido, filling this tale with so many sexualized details that it positively pulses, but also ensuring this sexuality is safely de-fanged. The narrator, while revelling in the physical, confesses only to the loftiest of admirations, and even confines his praises largely to the most cerebral parts. Quite literally, we are informed of every detail of Ligeia’s head – the closest we can get to a description of her intellect.
Poe was not the first 19th century writer to detour the sexuality of his works to the metaphysical/scientific and back again. O’Brien’s Linley in “The Diamond Lens” becomes at once intellectually and erotically obsessed with a microscopic woman and his power over her. It is the infatuation with this power that leads to the neglect that ultimately kills the object of his lust.
Observation – classification – collection
That Victorian triad – observation, classification, and collection – saturates these works. Poe’s narrator certainly observes Ligeia (the author dedicates large amounts of valuable “real estate” to ensuring we know he’s looking at her carefully). “Ligeia’s” narrator also frets over classification, eventually giving up his paragraphs-long search to find the precise description of his love, and giving over instead to a sensual rush of impressions. As for collection, while this tale lacks the explicitly scientific veneer of later Victorian SpecFic, Poe’s narrator quite plainly admits to having bought Rowena. His musings on the marital transaction are as superior and dehumanizing as some real-world collectors opinions on the people they purchased (or stole) artifacts from for Western museums:
“Where were the souls of the haughty family of the bride, when, through thirst of gold, they permitted to pass the threshold of an apartment so bedecked, a maiden and a daughter so beloved? ” (Poe)
He doesn’t dwell on the specific reasons for taking Rowena when his grief for Ligeia is still so profound. The reader may surmise that he didn’t take a wife – he bought supplies.
Poe never details the mystical learning and experiments of Ligeia, save for the intimation that she was attempting to gain immortality. Any “mad scientist” attempting that in literature must be supplied with a fresh body, thanks to the precedent set by Mary Shelley XX years before. Ligeia herself is closer to Victor Frankenstein but the real focus of the tale, unlike Shelly’s, is the assistiant. Poe’s narrator, cognizant or not, follows in his wife’s footsteps. He delivers Rowena to the bedroom/”lab” and sits back, his task complete. Whether Ligeia is actually haunting this chamber or his mind is immaterial – he is a faithful servant, deeply in thrall to his image of Ligeia. The actual woman in the story, Rowena, is “loathed…with a hatred belonging to demon more than man”
The perfect submission of Poe’s narrator to his first wife enters another vein of Victorian literary obsession – power imbalances. Victorian literature is teeming with dominatrices and masters, and their (arguably) willing submissives. And that’s before one even gets to the pornography. The dominatrix herself was a treasured type of 19th century expression, the subject of endless fascination. No domme of Victorian literature would be complete without her submissive partner, so Ligeia has her husband/assistant to fill this role.
Ligeia’s husband is perfect in his devotion, in what may almost be seen as a parody of the more orthodox Victorian emphasis on marital loyalty. The narrator remains in servitude even after his mistress’ death. Even though she literally fades away halfway thought the story, he continuously, obsessively renews her effect. He is aided in his efforts, too, by large amounts of opium, using this ritualistically to recreate memories of Ligeia and the feelings they arouse.
His desire to recreate her is so strong that it supersedes death (unless it doesn’t). On the surface, it would seem Ligeia won, her own “indomitable will” conquering the worm. Or, it is her husband’s efforts that make the last push into reanimation. Or, it is all the hallucinations of a grieving man.
Ligeia’s quest to defy mortality, and the narrator’s subsequent murder of Rowena are both closely linked with the milieu of Victorian specific. Bodily perfection, transcendence, the intervention by science in natural processes – these fixations are part and parcel of 19th century western culture, and are present throughout literature and art of this period. The modern reader can envision the Victorians as looking on the world as laboratory. Whether in service of actual scientific exploration or mysticism, they approached these fixations/quests with scientific zeal. To the Victorian scientist and his counterpart, the mystic, this world and even worlds beyond were available for human manipulation, provided one’s will was strong enough.
Poe Pervs: Consumption
It is hard to pinpoint much in the way of overt eroticism in Poe’s story beyond the submissive, voyeuristic proclivities of the narrator. But that is with 21st century eyes. To a Victorian reader, there is present a sublimated eros in the figure of the consumptive female body.
As would be apparent to the most casual of Poe readers, disease is important, and no disease is as revered and feared in Poe’s work as consumption. Contemporary readers will automatically insert “tuberculosis” into that inevitable question of “what was consumption, exactly”. The reader will then most likely be at a loss for words because we like to tell ourselves “noone gets TB any more!” Well, stop being so classist and racist and dismissive, because “we” do certainly get TB, and it’s a horrible disease to die from, especially without access to modern medicine.
And that was precisely what Poe’s contemporaries lacked. TB, like many other diseases, was rampant when he was working, and the average person would have certainly had an idea of what dying of this meant. Many people lost many loved ones to this disease – it’s not surprising that it was literally written into so much from this era. Poe lost his beloved wife Virginia to it, as well. People literally wasted away from it, looking liek something had eaten away at them – hence, “consumption”.
Aside from the frightful symptoms (wasting away, coughing up blood and pus), why did consumption have such staying power in the Victorian imagination? And why, for the love of all that’s holy, was it sexualized?
We’re going to have to take a little trip to explain this. In the slightly less interesting centuries before My Obvious Favorite, the 19th, people thought about disease differently. Consumption was rightly considered a gross disease. Doctors, using what (erroneous) knowledge they thought they had, considered it an imbalance of bodily humors, which caused the person suffering from it to literally expel excess blood and phlegm. This had nothing to do with the mind, this was all body: the lungs, the powerhouses in your ribcage, these fleshy, squishy, non-thinking organs were the culprits (technically germs were, but germ theory was still a long way away at this point). Suddenly, a wild Enlightenment appeared, and the brain and nerves were more popular than the creaky, puking, coughing body. The cerebral took precedence over the earthly, and suddenly the way people thought about this disease changed. From the bloodly globs of the old ideas grew a “linear consumptive model” ( that captured a trending topic: the nerves.
Nerves, in this sense, were not just the fibers and filaments we now know send signals all over our bodies – they were also miniature tools to separate the upper crust from the teeming millions. Finely tuned, “sensitive” nerves and delicate health were equated with good taste, good character, and, as Newton himself would say, the benjamins. Think about it: you only had the time and money to develop a taste for the “right” music, food, clothing, and more if you were wealthy. And because you had that correct taste (and the concomitant funding), why, you must be a special person! Or, as Lawlor says it, more succinctly,“With these developments came a change in the status of consumption in both medicine and metaphor…[the disease] embodied the esthetic and the spiritual – largely through women” (44).
That last part is important here: “largely through women”. Women, or more usually, our bodies, are the canvas on which people (usually men) work out all their shit. Fantasies, fears, judgements, and more – “woman” is an archetype while “man” is a man. Find a masculine equivalent of Mary, of a “girl next door”, a “slut”, a “bitch”. Precise equivalents that you can’t turn around and justify. Go on, I’ll wait….
No I won’t, because you can’t find that, as that happens to be precisely how sexism works. And we are working here with very, very sexist texts. The medical texts were sexist, in that they eroticized women suffering from disease, praising the way the victims lost weight and grew pale (why hello Eurocentric beauty standards!), and completely perved on the blush and manic/listless behavior cycle that could also come with the disease, “consumption seems to be a natural cosmetic”.
You can see how offensive this is, but in a way that “made sense” to 19th century people the way current stereotypes about women “make sense” to some people today. Poe’s work, especially “Ligeia”, wouldn’t be the same without the eroticised death of thinly characterized women.
If one is going to take “Ligeia” at face value, the periodic reviving of Rowena form a potentially erotic pattern for the 19th century reader. Towards the end of the story, Poe’s narrator observes a startling physical transformation of the dead Rowena. The corpse revives and re-dies no less than three separate times over 4 distinct paragraphs. Rowena stirs, makes small noises, and blushes (Victorian for arousal and orgasm) only to fall into a state of deeper morbidity each time. To a contemporary reader, consumption’s eroticization is at first inexplicable. But to an early Victorian eye, the breathlessness, listlessness, and reddened cheeks of TB victims mimicked sexual arousal. Symbolically, the frail, bedridden female body echoed the sexually aroused female body. The perceived lack of agency or even self control informed both 19th century mythos about the consumptive woman, as well as misunderstandings of female sexual expression.
With all these false starts, Poe has stretched the tension to a maddening point, consigning his narrator and reader to be in a torment of anticipation each time. The climax of the story is at best ambiguous – did Rowena transform, or was the narrator imaging it? If so, did she revive at all, rescued from the edge of the grave, or is our narrator falling ever deeper into drug-fueled madness? Whatever the reality of the story, this climax contains its own erotic resonances: the narrator himself is breathless and his emotions, already played to breaking, maintain a fevered pitch. Poe has given him half sentences, incredulous questions, and exclamations rather than full monologue. He watches the body rise from the bed, and stumble around. What should be a terrifying scene is written almost like a striptease – the bandages and shroud do not provoke immediate revulsion. Instead they fall away bit by bit, revealing one detail than another of his beloved (or his hallucination).
Poe Pervs: Hair
In this reveal, it is not the body, limbs, or even famous eyes of Ligeia we are treated to, oddly enough. It is her hair. For Victorians, female hair was one of the most symbolically and sexually charged body parts. Hair was gendered, sexualized, commodified, and even revered. The social requirement for certain, socially acceptable and erotically desirable women to maintain a “crowning glory” reached its apex in the 19th century and even makes an appearance today.
Firstly, the Victorian hair fetish denoted what sort of woman could be considered beautiful and desirable. the preference for long, silky hair that could be maintained and dressed as fashion dictated absolutely required the hair texture and the available monetary and social resources only upper class white women would have had at the time. The physical reality of excessively long hair is that it requires a great deal of labor (to wash, dress, etc), idle time (to dry, before the advent of modern hair dryers). After a point, long hair can even restrict physical movements (due to the sheer weight, and the potential for getting caught in things, also restricting bodily movement to not destroy elaborate and expensive hairdos) The idle, yet industrious; the physically lush yet confined; these contradictions are all but copied from the Victorian formula of the ideal woman.
One must also take into account the erotic possibilities of hair. The human scalp has many nerve endings that reward appropriate stimulation with pleasurable sensation. This surely could not have escaped the notice of 19thc lovers. Perhaps, then, given the Victorian penchant for substituting a “safer” body part for the actual reference, the full, luxuriant female head of hair referred to other less genteel centers of bodily pleasure.
As for commodification, human hair was literally the raw material for one of the most famous and beloved artifacts of Victorian culture today. Hair work was developed as part of the elaborate mourning culture popularized in the 19th c. As the cult of sensibility grew from the 18th century into every facet of life over the ensuing century, mourning became more and more ritualized. And ritual calls for objects.
Women, especially the middle and upper class women with the time and money to devote to these things, became active in the creation and dissemination of mourning objects. A vast array of costumes, accessories, and even home decor arose to fill the new need for mourning gear. Hairwork was one of the more popular media for this market. Delicate as hairwork is, it became closely aligned with femininity. The 19th c saw the birth of crafting, originally “masculinized” with the Arts and Crafts movement. Smaller, more personal and portable objects were more in line with the resources and even abilities of women (how many 19thc ladies were trained in carpentry, after all?) so the movement eventually evolved into crafting, which remains heavily female-identified even today. Delicate media such as hair or china painting became “women’s territory” and women’s artistic output was steered into semi-anonymous goods for the domestic sphere, as men’s crafts remained larger, more public, and readily identifiable.
Poe, Edgar Allan, “Ligeia” Online Text