I’ve been reading some Sir Walter Scott lately. Any serious reader of 19th century literature has to have at least cursory knowledge of Scott’s writing, as his influence on pop culture and his writers of the age like Goethe, Eliot, and Austen was immense. As I was reading through Ivanhoe, specifically the part where Rowena’s room is described I got the strangest feeling of deja vu.
Following a hunch, I dug out my copy of Poe’s Ligeia and found what I was looking for. Rowena’s room, which is a highly symbolic element of Ligeia and is the site of major plot events, was heavily borrowed from Rowena’s room in Ivanhoe.
It’s no secret Poe took influence from Scott in the creation of his Rowena. He very much intends to make use of the “girl next door” vs. “femme fatale” trope that Scott uses masterfully with the mild-mannered Rowena and dangerous Other, Rebecca. But, the question I asked myself as I started comparing the passages is, what is Poe taking from Scott, and in what ways is he extending Scott’s imagery and ideas?
So first I’ll show you the descriptions of the chambers. Both authors go into extensive detail, understandable as both Scott and Poe use the setting and environment in their writing to great effect. Next, I’ll run down some of the important similarities of the passages, and in particular what this means for the interpretation of Ligeia.
A short passage, and an ascent of seven steps, each of which was composed of a solid beam of oak, led him to the apartment of the Lady Rowena, the rude magnificence of which corresponded to the respect which was paid to her by the lord of the mansion. The walls were covered with embroidered hangings, on which different coloured silks, interwoven with gold and silver threads, had been employed with all the art of which the age was capable, to represent the sports of hunting and hawking. The bed was adorned with the same rich tapestry, and surrounded with curtains dyed of purple. The seats had also their stained coverings, and one, which was higher than the rest, was accommodated with a footstool of ivory, curiously carved.
No less than four silver candelabra, holding great waxen torches, served to illuminate this apartment. Yet let not modern beauty envy the magnificence of a Saxon princess. The walls of the apartment were so ill finished and so full of crevices, that the rich hangings shook to the night blast, and in despite of a sort of screen intended to protect them from the wind, the flame of the torches streamed sideways into the air, like the unfurled pennon of a chieftain. Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste; but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed.
Now take a look at the lovely Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine’s room in Ligeia. Fair warning it is a lengthier passage. I think of it like Rowena’s room on steroids.
The room lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey, was pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size. Occupying the whole southern face of the pentagon was the sole window –an immense sheet of unbroken glass from Venice –a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either the sun or moon, passing through it, fell with a ghastly lustre on the objects within. Over the upper portion of this huge window, extended the trellice-work of an aged vine, which clambered up the massy walls of the turret. The ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device. From out the most central recess of this melancholy vaulting, depended, by a single chain of gold with long links, a huge censer of the same metal, Saracenic in pattern, and with many perforations so contrived that there writhed in and out of them, as if endued with a serpent vitality, a continual succession of parti-colored fires.
Some few ottomans and golden candelabra, of Eastern figure, were in various stations about –and there was the couch, too –bridal couch –of an Indian model, and low, and sculptured of solid ebony, with a pall-like canopy above. In each of the angles of the chamber stood on end a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite, from the tombs of the kings over against Luxor, with their aged lids full of immemorial sculpture. But in the draping of the apartment lay, alas! the chief phantasy of all. The lofty walls, gigantic in height –even unproportionably so –were hung from summit to foot, in vast folds, with a heavy and massive-looking tapestry –tapestry of a material which was found alike as a carpet on the floor, as a covering for the ottomans and the ebony bed, as a canopy for the bed, and as the gorgeous volutes of the curtains which partially shaded the window. The material was the richest cloth of gold. It was spotted all over, at irregular intervals, with arabesque figures, about a foot in diameter, and wrought upon the cloth in patterns of the most jetty black. But these figures partook of the true character of the arabesque only when regarded from a single point of view. By a contrivance now common, and indeed traceable to a very remote period of antiquity, they were made changeable in aspect. To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a farther advance, this appearance gradually departed; and step by step, as the visitor moved his station in the chamber, he saw himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies –giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.
Full annotated text online
So a couple things to notice right away is that neither room seem particularly comfortable! There is an appearance of opulence that is immediately undermined by the elements of the room that are “rude” or “uneasy”. Neither Rowena are in their right place: in Ivanhoe, Rowena longs to be with Ivanhoe who has left, being cast out of his father’s house for wishing to marry her, and in Ligeia, Lady Rowena is merely a paltry substitute for the woman the narrator really wants. Scott uses the word “rude” twice in his description, partially to make comment on how even the richest of Saxons would not have been living as comfortably as the 19th century readers of the book do (or as we do for that matter).
I think this “rude”ness though is more than simply that the castle is cold and drafty. The “rich hangings” of Rowena’s wall tapestries shake against a “night blast”, foreshadowing the troubles that are to come suddenly bursting into her structured, sheltered life.
There is not much mention of Rowena having too many imported pieces of furniture, with the exception of the ivory stool, which most likely would have come from Eastern trade, Africa or India possibly. This is no accident, as Scott sets up Rowena as a foil to the Jewess Rebecca, who wears Eastern clothing and frequently refers to foreign customs, garbs, or foods. Rebecca is the Other in many ways: brunette, intelligent and independent, and sexualised by multiple characters. Rowena though is blonde, obedient, and embodies the qualities one would associate with a “good Englishwoman”.
The presence or absence of the Far East in the bedroom is where Scott and Poe differ the most. Poe’s Lady Rowena has a few ottomans and candelabra “of Eastern figure”, a bridal couch “of Indian model” and “a gigantic sarcophagus”. Even the “semi-Druidical” golden chain in the centre of the room is “Saracenic in pattern”. Now the term “Saracen” has been used differently throughout the ages, so it is unclear specifically what Poe might mean by this, but a Saracen in medieval writing usually referred to those living in what is now the Middle East, or Muslims (the term “Islam” or “Muslim” did not appear in English writing until the 16th century or so). So even in the golden chain, which was initially associated with England through the Druid reference, still contains an Eastern element.
Why do those references to the East matter in Ligeia? Because like Rebecca, Ligeia represents in part the Other for Poe. She is the intelligent, raven-haired, statuesque beauty who consumes his mind and ultimately his soul. She has knowledge of many lands, and dangerous knowledge too. She is otherworldly, while Lady Rowena is firmly grounded in the material, the real, the practical. Many authors make references to the East when they wish to refer to things that are different, dangerous, exotic (many scholars have written about how this Othering is problematic, but that is a topic for another day). Lady Rowena has a room where those Eastern influences have crept in, and especially with the golden chain, that melding of East and West mirrors the eventual melding of Rowena and Ligeia when Ligeia possesses her body.
So you can see through a close reading of these two passages how Poe picked up on an idea in Scott’s writing, such as the appearance of the rooms, or the East/West dichotomy, and ran with it in his Gothic, phantasmagoric way. I love looking at that intertextuality and I hope you got something out of these ruminations too.
Send me a comment or message if you have any questions, and if you notice anything else about the passages you think worth mentioning, please do contribute to the dialogue! If you’re interested in any more Poe blog posts, check out my posts on dead women or psychic civil war.