Anyone who has read Edgar Allan Poe can attest to his use of the English language to convey beauty as poignant and surreal to whatever situation life may reveal. His sense of the macabre is elegant and alluring, so much so that we see ourselves as the very target of ethereal forces at work.
The story of ‘Ligeia’ represents Poe’s fascination with love and the occult, the hidden side of life not often visited but which can unexpectedly manifest itself into the realm of the living. Love is enchanting at first and then assembles a castle of obsession. This theme is well represented in the very name of ‘Ligeia’, which borrows heavily from its origins as one of the Sirens in Greek mythology enticing sailors with alluring melodies and enchanted singing, causing blind obsession for the hypnotic sounds as the victims sail closer and closer, only to fall off the cliffs and drown.
Poe undoubtedly had the same theme in mind when he wrote the story of Ligeia. But instead of water, the act of drowning is a sea of love shrouded in infatuation so deep it transgresses the grave.
The story revolves around a quote from a certain Joseph Glanville as stated in part below:
“For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly , save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
In the author’s consideration, man lacks the will to conquer death… if only he had the strength of will.
The narrator whose name is never given reminisces about his first wife, Ligeia who dies from an undisclosed illness, leaving him distraught and addicted to opium thus affecting his cognition in as far as memory’s concerned and prone to hallucinations.
He recalls her features qualifying that they weren’t in the classical sense. In fact, he could never pin down her attributes except to say her eyes which he describes as large, dark, orbs reminding him of the twin stars of Leda.
Ligeia though outwardly calm and introverted… her beauty hides a passionate yearning for life which shows itself by way of her eyes. Being well-educated she is endearing to the narrator and in the following passage, he eagerly sings her praises…
…I said her knowledge was such, as I had never known in a woman. Where breathes the man who, like her, has traversed, and successfully, all the wide areas of moral, natural, and mathematical science? I saw not then what I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding–yet I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a childlike confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage. With how vast a triumph–with how vivid a delight–with how much of all that is ethereal in hope–did I feel, as she bent over me, in studies but little sought for–but less known that delicious vista by slow but very perceptible degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom to divinely precious not to be forbidden!
…Her presence, her readings alone, rendered vividly luminous the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed.
Here you can perceive the hypnotic effect of love and infatuation bordering on insanity which the narrator clings to. One will either drown in these waters; emerged in the throes of psychosis or obtain bliss so celebrated that men will commit untold crimes to achieve it. But whatever course is taken, life is never the same.
In her illness, Ligeia became infatuated with a poem she wrote asking if God allows people to beat death and the conquering worm. She also repeats Glanville’s quote on mans’ feeble will to overcome death, repeating it until she finally succumbs.
To overcome his grief, the narrator marries again, this time to the Lady Rowena. It becomes clear that she marries him for his money as she and her family detest him and his opium hallucinations where he calls out Ligeia’s name.
For the next few months, the Lady Rowena is overcome with repeated illness’ as doctors are unable to come to any conclusions. She continuously sees and hears things that aren’t there; noises by the draperies, footsteps on the carpet, wine being poured into her glass. The narrator often intoxicated is haunted by the same phenomenon; never assure of what he is seeing.
When she passes, she lays in repose wrapped in a shroud; the narrator watches the body through the night. Still intoxicated with Ligeia weighing heavy on his mind he sees the Lady Rowena’s lips move and color in her cheeks, he tries to revive her only for the body to turn cold once again, this happens repeatedly. Finally, the body sits up, gets out of bed, the shroud falls down and the narrator looks into the dark luminous eyes of his beloved Ligeia.
In this story at first love is in response to, physical beauty, harmonious companionship, and knowledge? These themes remain relevant and of first importance but then loves become synonymous with a desire to cheat death, for eternal youth and immortality. And the only way one can attain these are through the false inflections of insanity and intoxication which reveals itself in desperate acts.
Or is it? Maybe the story is more like a myth that dances to the truth although it seems bizarre in our limited view? Who are we to argue with the ties that bind beyond the veil, that the unconscious mind is capable of willing life to resuscitate itself for the sake of love not lived out to its natural completion? This thought is of such horror that it is inexplicable to the ordinary mind, but what of the brokenhearted whose mental functioning is unbalanced because of such anguish?
However, can it be that the story’s theme of life beyond death is as simple as the gift of memory, which death cannot destroy? This resuscitates the spiritual proverb that we are all ‘one’ in the metaphysical sense. Love is of the universe so it lives on and this ability allows one to see the ‘other’ in everything. But one has to admit; with Poe, this can also play to our worse devils if allowed.
Whether you read the story as one of unwavering, love and devotion; as a supernatural tale of life’s triumph over death or in the spiritual sense; it is a testament to Poe’s affirmation for beauty and death, as poetry with a heavy dose of ‘lunacy beyond reason’ thrown in.