'Ligeia' seems to be operatic in its tone and intensity

February 20, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

"Ligeia" tells the story of a repressed and detached scholar haunted by the memory of his lost love, Ligeia. He attributes to her unmatched poise, learning, and the beauty of the stars in the sky.

One of the most anthologized of Edgar Allan Poe's stories, "Ligeia" is taken seriously by most Poe scholars and credited, along with several other Poe works, with giving birth to the modern tale of terror. Others see its prose as purple and its plot unconvincing.

The narrator, never named, meets Ligeia "in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine."

A full half of the story is a lyrical, if overblown and unrelentingly sentimental, elegy to his late Ligeia. "She came and departed as a shadow," he writes. "I was never made aware of her entrance into my closed study save by the dear music of her low sweet voice, as she placed her marble hand upon my shoulder."

Her face, he recalls, "was the radiance of an opium-dream -- an airy and spirit-lifting vision." Her eyes carried "the beauty of beings either above or apart from the world.

"Without Ligeia," he writes, "I was but as a child, groping benighted."

But Ligeia grows ill and pale, and proves as noble in death as in life. The narrator writes of her affection and "her wild longing, . . . this vehemence of desire for life . . . that I have no power to portray."

Crushed by her death, he retreats to an abbey in a dark and obscure corner of England, and takes a new wife. "I had become a bounden slave in the trammels of opium, and my labors and my orders had taken a coloring from my dreams."

His new marriage does not enliven him. "I loathed her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man." His memory returns, with great regret, to Ligeia. And the story moves to its macabre and ambiguous conclusion.

"Ligeia" exerted profound influence on the French symbolist Charles Baudelaire, the restless, alienated innovator whose poetry of the demimonde -- the half-world between dark and light, dream and life, evil and good -- opened the door to literary modernism.

Baudelaire's translations and support, in turn, helped establish Poe's international reputation. Poe's stories appeared in the 1830s and 1840s, as American literature was only beginning to be taken seriously on the world stage.

The story makes a natural choice for opera, says John Irwin, director of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and author of a recent book about Poe's detective tales. The emotional focus, hallucinatory tone and unalloyed intensity of "Ligeia" evoke the word "operatic," he says.

"Ligeia," Dr. Irwin says, is one of the best known of Poe's "dying woman stories," which show the writer's fascination with the survival of life after death. These stories play on the longing and shiver of terror the living feel toward the dead, and the important place we hold in our hearts for lost lovers.

To Dr. Irwin, Poe is easily the equal of the great mid-19th-century writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and laid the groundwork not only for modern poetry and prose but Freudian psychoanalysis as well.

Those who knock the story as sentimental and childish, Dr. Irwin says, miss the fact that Poe is writing about extreme psychological states, and Poe knew as surely as Freud that our deepest emotions are essentially childlike or adolescent.

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