Ancient Mythology in Poe’s novel ‘Ligeia’ (1838)

ligeia-clarke2Context and themes

Edgar A. Poe’s short novel Ligeia was first published in September 1838 by The American Museum in Baltimore.1 Poe, who was always short of money, was given 10 dollars for the story. It’s a mix of Gothic fiction and several other themes which are typical for the Romanticism. The major themes in the story are the death of a young woman, resurrection of a dead (young) woman and drug use since the narrator hallucinate through the entire story. Other sub-themes are memory and mourning. Playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The story of the Lady Ligeia is not merely one of the wonders of literature: it is unparalleled and unapproached”(Sova 2007, p.96). On the whole reception of the novel was positive, despite Poe revised it a few times. There are three characters in this story – an unknown narrator in first person, Ligeia and the Lady Rowena. The narrator suffers from a psychological condition, monomania in which he constantly reflects upon the beauty and personal character of his late wife Ligeia. Despite his frail psychological condition and opium addiction the narrator has remarried a woman named Lady Rowena. She is not from the city and lives in fear of her husband. Her features doesn’t assemble the previous wife and we’re told her hair is blond. The narrator doesn’t like her: “I loathed her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man.” His addiction to opium helps him to hallucinate and get into a deeper spiritual connection with his dead wife. He calls her name and sees her in several visions. At one time he hallucinate and sees four large drops coming from an imagined well in the room. He collects the red drops and administer them to the Lady Rowena who dies from the dose. In the eyes of the dying Rowena he sees Ligeia. The novel also contains a poem called “The Conqueror Worm”. The poem is written by Ligeia as she is dying, though it is actually recited by the narrator, her husband.2

Myths and other references in Ligeia

I wrote previously on this blog about Poe’s use of Ancient mythology in the poem called Al-Aaraaf. The name Ligeia also appears in the poem. It’s constructed out of a Greek adjective, ligys first used by Homer and is related to something which is bright, light sounding. This was pointed out by T.O Mabbott in The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978). The narrator identifies Ligeia as Astarte. In Poe’s novel known as Ashtophet (Andriano 1978, p. 87). Just as in his Al-Aaraaf poem Poe once again touch upon the islamic myth of the houris; mentioned serveral times in the Qur’an.3 Another reference to Eastern traditions can be found in this sentence: “They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.”4

Resources

Andriano, Joseph. 1993. Our ladies of darkness: feminine daemonology in male Gothic fiction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sova, Dawn B. 2007. Critical companion to Edgar Allan Poe: a literary reference to his life and work. New York, NY.

Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., 1978. The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vols 2-3 Tales and Sketches), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

NOTES


  1. The American Museum was a monthly American literary magazine published by Mathew Carey in the late-18th century. 
  2. It was first published separately in Graham’s Magazine in 1843. 
  3. ḥaurā is singular form, meaning a gazelle-eyed (woman). Read more about houris here
  4. Frances Sheridan published The History of Nourjahad in 1767. The story describes Nourjahad’s life, who is tricked by the sultan Schemzeddin to believe that he has become immortal and that his period of sleep last for several years at a time.