“… the play is the tragedy, ‘Man,’ / And its hero, the conqueror Worm.”
“It is not to be supposed that Cryptography … as the means of imparting important information, has gone out of use at the present day. It is still commonly practised in diplomacy; and there are individuals, even now, holding office in … various foreign governments, whose real business is that of deciphering.”
By 1838, Poe, ever the Southerner, was beginning to react to what he perceived as the clubbishness of the American literary scene. For scene there was, and Boston had it. Out of that elite circle of writers and thinkers came the movement that defied the idea of movements, Transcendentalism. Two years before Poe wrote “Ligeia,” for which he was happy to get ten dollars from the American Museum of Literature and the Arts, the Transcendental Club sprang up on the Boston literary scene where the members could hobnob to discuss theology, philosophy, and literature. They published themselves in their own journal, and some went on to experiment with utopian living in a commune, which only lasted a few years.
The publication of the Transcendental Club was called The Dial, a kind of literary “sun dial” measuring the American cultural times, and it was published on a shoestring budget for four years. A subscription cost three dollars a year for four 136-page issues that promised contributions from writers who championed social justice and intellectual freedom.
Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the central idea of Transcendentalism, which insists “… on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture.” This was grist for Poe.
Creation of Ligeia
Poe goes to great lengths to establish the intense Ligeia as a woman of unusual learning—not to mention other faculties. “I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia: it was immense—such as I have never known in woman. In the classical tongues was she deeply proficient, and as far as my own acquaintance extended in regard to the modern dialects of Europe, I have never known her at fault. Indeed upon any theme of the most admired, because simply the most abstruse of the boasted erudition of the academy, have I ever found Ligeia at fault? How singularly—how thrillingly, this one point in the nature of my wife has forced itself, at this late period only, upon my attention! I said her knowledge was such as I have never known in woman—but where breathes the man who has traversed, and successfully, all the wide areas of moral, physical, 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 child-like 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—but less known—that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden!”
This tale gives you the gorgeous, intellectual Ligeia, who seems to believe death is just a failure of will; and the Byronic, opium-dependent narrator husband who reports the results of Ligeia's great experiment, setting the stage by describing her erotic attachment to him. “That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only, was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry. How had I deserved to be so blessed by such confessions?—how had I deserved to be so cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of her making them? But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only, that in Ligeia's more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length recognized the principle of her longing with so wildly earnest a desire for the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing—it is this eager vehemence of desire for life—but for life—that I have no power to portray—no utterance capable of expressing.”
Will Ligeia beat the death rap? And if so, how? Poe is making arch, deadpan fun of the Transcendental mystique of the will as one of man's great faculties—the way to triumph over mere matter, the way to approach the mystery of the divine.
“After reading all that has been written, and after thinking all that can be thought, on the topics of God and the soul, the man who has a right to say that he thinks at all, will find himself face to face with the conclusion that, on these topics, the most profound thought is that which can be the least easily distinguished from the most superficial sentiment.”—Poe on the Divine
Countering what must have seemed to him an insufferably naive optimism that money and a secure social position could buy, Poe takes on this cult of the individual by using—of all things—Gothic devices to show the horror of it. Esoteric learning, castles, exotic locales, narcotic dreams, the mysteries of life and death, all render uncomfortable the vague Transcendental mystique of Ligeia. And so, in Poe's hands, the tale becomes a horror story, and it is so infernally deadpan and over the top that it's easy to take it at face value. In an 1846 letter to Evert Duyckinck, Poe calls this tale “undoubtedly the best story I have written.”
No wonder “Ligeia” was his personal favorite of his seventy-three tales. It is in some ways a declaration of war.