Death as Threshold
Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
The standard view that Poe was fixated on death is true only to the extent that he appears to have contemplated the threshold between life and death with something approaching wonder and horror. Poe’s religious beliefs were highly unorthodox, and there is little evidence that he was ever a Christian in the common understanding of the term; indeed, his late treatise Eureka (1848) makes it evident that, although he believed in some kind of guiding power in the universe, his views on the afterlife were anything but conventional. To be sure, such a work as the gorgeous prose-poem “Shadow—A Parable” (Southern Literary Messenger, September 1835) makes clear the fascination, perhaps the awe, that Poe felt in the face of death; for the Shadow of the title is nothing but an embodiment of death, as he makes clear in his ponderous utterance toward the end, “I am SHADOW, and my dwelling is near to the Catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion which border upon the foul Charonian canal” (CW 2.191). In this work “shadow” is used alternately—and on occasion simultaneously—in its literal signification and as a synonym for “shade,” as the narrator himself announces at the outset: “Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows” (CW 2.188).
Poe’s reputation for morbidity may not be entirely undeserved, if we take “Berenice” (Southern Literary Messenger, March 1835) as representative of his work. This well-known story of a man fixated with his cousin’s teeth—to the point that, upon her death, he opens her tomb and removes them—would be dreadful enough; but there is the further implication that the narrator, Egaeus, performed his impromptu dental work while Berenice was still alive: for why is Egaeus’s hand “indented with the impress of human nails” (CW 2.218) after his graverobbing? Poe is right in declaring, in a letter, that the story “approaches the very verge of bad taste” (L 58), but the malign artistry of the tale simultaneously distracts us from the horror of the scenario through admiration of Poe’s skill and, paradoxically, enhances our loathing through that very skill. The groundwork has been meticulously arranged: Berenice’s tendency to lapse into a comalike state that feigns death (“a species of elilepsy not infrequently terminating in trance itself—trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution” [CW 2.211]); the narrator’s fixation with Berenice’s teeth (“and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth [Poe’s emphasis] of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view” [CW 2.215]); and, in general, Egaeus’s own inclination toward monomania (“addicted, body and soul, to the most intense and painful meditation” [CW 2.210])—all of which leads to the spectacular denouement that literally concludes the tale, when Egaeus returns from the tomb with a seemingly innocuous little “box” that “slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor” (CW 2.219).
As for “Ligeia” (Baltimore American Museum, September 1838), it is difficult to speak of it save with superlatives. Poe recognized that it was a triumph; in a letter of early 1846 he states unequivocally that it was “undoubtedly the best story I have written” (L 309), while in an anonymous review of his own work he declares that it is “the most extraordinary of his achievements” (ER 869). The tale is nothing more or less than an exposition of the triumph of the will over death, as suggested by the epigraph from Joseph Glanvil (“Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will” [CW 2.310]). The narrator makes clear Ligeia’s unholy, uncanny, preternatural thirst for life: “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” (CW 2.317—18). And she manifests that desire to the extent of reanimating the corpse of her husband’s second wife, the weak-willed Rowena. This climax is, again, subtly anticipated when the narrator sees a “shadow” (CW 2.320) in Rowena’s room, recalling the fact that Ligeia herself once “came and departed as a shadow” (CW 2.311).
Possibly the only perplexing issue, at least in terms of plot, is the inclusion in “Ligeia” of the poem “The Conqueror Worm,” originally published separately (in Graham’s Magazine, January 1843) and inserted into a revised version of the tale (New York New World, 15 February 1845). In the story it purports to be a work by Ligeia. Mabbott maintains that the poem—a magnificent exposition of the omnipresence of death and the futility of human effort—is “a plain indication that the human will was too feeble to enable Ligeia to win” (CW 2.307); but, as a matter of fact, Ligeia does “win” by reanimating Rowena’s corpse—an event that constitutes (once again) the climax and the conclusion of the story. I hardly think we need take any notice of Joel Porte’s belief (as paraphrased by Scott Peeples) that the poem can be read “as Ligeia’s vision not of the plight of ’man’ confronted by death but of the plight of woman confronted by ’the conquering male organ’” (Peeples 53), one of the many absurd and preposterous interpretations to which this story has been subjected by overly ingenious critics. My humble feeling is that Poe simply didn’t want to waste this magnificent poem by letting it languish in a magazine or newspaper—although he did include it in The Raven and Other Poems (1845).
Slight variants of the “Ligeia” idea can be found in two tales, one preceding and one following it. “Morella” (Southern Literary Messenger, April 1835) tells of how the narrator marries the woman of that name, but then grows disenchanted with her. She dies, and the child she bore just before her death is also named Morella. This child also dies, and when the narrator goes to bury her in the family tomb he finds that the original Morella’s tomb is empty. Clearly the first Morella’s soul or spirit survived her death and transferred itself into the body of her own daughter. The identity of the names of the two Morellas somewhat telegraphs the punch; but Poe again ingeniously manages to delay the final confirmation of the supernaturalism of the story (the first Morella’s empty tomb) until the final line.
Another case of soul-transference, of a highly unusual sort, occurs in “The Oval Portrait” (Graham’s Magazine, April 1842). Here a man who paints his wife’s portrait finds that she is gradually weakening while the painting is taking shape under his hands. In the end we are led to believe that in some inexplicable process the wife’s life-force has been transmitted into the painting, as the painter cries in the final line: “This [the portrait] is indeed Life itself!’ [and] turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!” (CW 2.666). I think we are to read this tale as symbolising the painter’s preference for his art over his love for his wife.
Perhaps even “The Black Cat” (United States Saturday Post [Philadelphia], 19 August 1843) should be considered here, for here again we appear to be dealing with metempsychosis. This tale brings “Metzengerstein” to mind in suggesting soul-tranference in animals. The protagonist/narrator opens the tale by convicting himself of perverseness (“this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only” [CW 3.852]), and the entire tale is an instantiation of this trait. Why else would he kill (by the particularly brutal means of hanging) a cat who loves him? Why else would he take in another black cat—also missing an eye, thereby duplicating its predecessor, one of whose eyes the protagonist had viciously cut out of its socket in a drunken fit? Why else would he seek to kill the new cat with an axe when it so clearly has affection for him, and why would he end up killing his wife with that axe when she strives to stop the protagonist from committing his act? The sealing up of the wife (and the cat) behind a wall in the cellar is ultimately detected by a police investigation.
The numerous supernatural episodes in the story—as carefully worked out as any in Poe’s tales—are worth studying in detail. The first episode concerns the burning down of the protagonist’s house after his killing of the first cat. On a wall of the smoking ruin he sees something bizarre: “I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal’s neck” (CW 2.853). That this phenomenon is indeed an actual occurrence and not a figment of the protagonist’s imagination is confirmed by the fact that others see it as well; and the narrator’s own feeble attempts to account for it naturalistically are both physically and morally inadequate, as the protagonist himself unwittingly reveals: “Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience [my emphasis], for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy” (CW 3.853). Of course, the metempsychosis implied by the anomalous similarity of the second cat to the first is the core supernatural phenomenon of the tale; and Poe adds a skilful touch by having a splotch of white fur on the second cat slowly turn into the shape of a gallows—an anticipation of the protagonist’s ultimate fate. I am half inclined to think that the narrator’s unwitting walling up of the cat within the makeshift tomb where he seals up his wife is itself to be regarded as a supernatural event, for it would seem difficult for him not to notice what he has done to the cat. His ultimate self-betrayal is, however, a result of the perverseness he noted at the outset, for he would have escaped capture if, in the presence of the police, he had not tapped the wall with his cane in a “phrenzy of bravado” (CW 3.858).
Poe’s most thrilling, and appalling, exercise in probing the ambiguous threshold of death is the late story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (American Review, December 1845). Poe was tickled at the fact that the sober narration and pseudo-scientific verisimilitude of the tale caused it to be accepted as the account of an actual event—another, and perhaps the most successful, of the series of hoaxes he perpetrated throughout his career. The story is Poe’s third dealing with the theories of Franz Mesmer (1734—1815), following “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, April 1844), which also involves reincarnation, and “Mesmeric Revelation” (Columbian Magazine, August 1844), in which a mesmeric patient speaks as if he has had some kind of experiential knowledge of God. Although the basic principles of mesmerism were later adopted in hypnotism, the philosophical or physiological basis for the practice, as propounded by Mesmer and his followers, rested upon fallacious views of “animal magnetism,” and Mesmer is now branded largely a charlatan. Poe, however, was fascinated with Mesmer’s conceptions, as witness his favourable comments on Chauncey Hare Townshend’s Facts in Mesmerism (1840; see CW 3.1024—25). Mercifully, the aesthetic effectiveness of “M. Valdemar” does not depend on its pseudo-scientific foundations. The notion that a man, near death, can be held in a kind of suspended animation through what would now be called hypnosis is dreadful enough; that such a man could actually profess his own death (“Yes;—no;—I have been sleeping—and now—now—I am dead” [CW 3.1240]) is worse; that he could be held in this kind of life-in-death for seven months, at the end of which, when the mesmeric “pass” is lifted, the hapless individual collapses in liquescent horror, is surely the acme of physical horror. The final paragraph deserves to be quoted in full:
As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of “dead! dead!” absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once—within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk—crumbled—absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity. (CW 3.1242—43)
(I agree with Lovecraft for preferring Poe’s original reading, “putrescence,” for his late revision, “putridity.”) I am not sure that any great depth of meaning need be read into the story; its succulent grisliness is perhaps the culmination of Poe’s use of the supernatural to expand the boundaries of imaginative fiction and to probe the ever-perplexing threshold between life and death.
But Poe’s focus on death—its perplexities and ambiguities, its possible thwarting by the human will or by supernatural or scientific causation—should not mislead us into thinking that his imagination did not extend beyond the bounds of the human psyche. His hackneyed idea that the most poetical subject is the death of a beautiful woman (see ER 19) is as flawed as many of his other theoretical presuppositions (if for no other reason than in the fallacy of thinking that a human woman is necessarily the most beautiful object in all creation); but we need look no further than Eureka—however arid and outmoded its scientific and philosophical speculations may be—to realise that Poe encompassed the universe, and not merely the earth, within his imaginative range.
Some of the most cosmic moments occur in poems early and late. Dreams prove to be a pathway to spectacular cosmic voyages beyond the bounds of mundane reality; as he wrote poignantly in the early poem “Dreams” (1827), “I have been happy—tho’ but in a dream” (l. 27). “Dream-Land” (Graham’s Magazine, June 1844) is perhaps the most eloquent and concentrated expression of this idea; its first stanza, familiar as it is, deserves quotation:
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an utimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space—out of Time. (ll. 1—8)
The late “A Dream within a Dream” (Flag of Our Union, 31 March 1849) uses the contrast of dream and reality to stress the transience and inconsequence of human life: “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream” (ll. 10—11).
One of Poe’s earliest tales, “MS. Found in a Bottle” (Baltimore Saturday Visiter, 19 October 1833), is powerfully cosmic. It may well be the case, as Floyd Stovall has maintained (132—33), that the tale is heavily indebted, in numerous aspects of its plot and imagery, to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it is in no sense merely a prose exposition of that ballad. The supernaturalism of the tale extends in two directions. In the first place is the chilling suggestion that the ship, Discovery, upon which the narrator finds himself is somehow animate. Is it possible that it has grown over the years and centuries as it continues along its seemingly aimless course? The narrator thinks of a Dutch apothegm: “It is as sure … as sure as there is a sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman” (CW 2.143). And this leads to the second phase of the tale’s supernaturalism; for it is plain that the ship has been at sea, with possibly the same hapless and appallingly aged crew, for centuries. It is here that the cosmicism of the tale truly manifests itself, as the narrator declares toward the end:
The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their figures fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin. (CW 2.144—45)
Superficially similar, but really quite different in its focus, is “A Descent into the Maelström” (Graham’s Magazine, May 1841). Far more realistic than the half-fantastic “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the story might perhaps be said to display a more restrained and disciplined use of the topographical imagination, but for that very reason it seems to have a somewhat weaker emotive impact than its predecessor. And yet, the first glimpse of the maelström is awe-inspiring:
The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far back as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven. (CW 2.580)
The subsequent account of a boat that becomes enmeshed in the maelström, hanging on its very edge but never falling into it, is one of Poe’s great excursions into quasi-supernatural suspense.
Several of Poe’s most “cosmic” narratives are his prose-poems, in which he imbued natural forces with a kind of philosophical awe by embodying them in pseudo-allegorical figures. I have already noted the personification of Death in “Shadow—A Parable”; less effective, perhaps, is its companion-piece, “Silence—A Fable” (Baltimore Book, 1838), where “the curse of silence” (CW 2.197) expounded by the Demon of the piece appears symbolic of the cessation of consciousness that follows upon death. Somewhat similar, but more effective, is “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1839), one of several philosophical dialogues written by Poe. The subject of this vignette is nothing less than the destruction of the earth (by a comet), and the two spirits of the title refresh their memories on the final days of the planet’s life. Then the cataclysm comes:
For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things. Then—let us bow down, Charmion, before the excessive majesty of the great God!—then, there came a shouting and pervading sound, as if from the mouth itself of HIM; while the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all. (CW 2.461)
“The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (Graham’s Magazine, April 1841) is a somewhat less cosmic rumination on death. But when we turn to “The Masque of the Red Death” (Graham’s Magazine, May 1842), we are in a very different realm altogether. Although the notion of personifying the plague would not seem the most promising of methodologies, Poe’s execution of this conception results in one of his great tales, a sustained prose-poem that somehow transfigures the hapless attendants of Prince Prospero’s ball, furiously seeking merriment while death encompasses them in an increasingly tight vise-grip, into symbols of the fragility of the entire human race when faced with overwhelming power of incurable disease. In this instance, the embodiment of a natural force—the plague—in the figure of a humanlike individual is itself generative of cosmic awe; for Prospero’s attempt to subdue it with a dagger is emblematic of the futility of our race’s flailing attempts to come to terms with the inexorable. And yet, the final paragraph of the tale reveals how much the terror and wonder of this story is engendered merely by the collocation of words:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. (CW 2.676—77)