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? Continue reading
Before there was Fight Club, Edgar Allan Poe was publishing multiple stories featuring main characters with alter egos. The trope of physically representing different aspects of the mind is by no means new, and certainly did not originate with Poe. However, he definitely seems to express old tropes and genres with a special kind of style. As numerous other Edgar Allan Poe critics have mentioned before, Poe loves to fixate on certain themes within his writings. In several tales, he regales us with allegorical tales of psychic civil war between passion and reason, usually resulting in the elimination of one of these parts of the psyche by the tale’s conclusion (he is just all about murder). This theme of the conflict between passion/inclinations/baser desires and reason/morality/intellect is by no means unique, but certainly a strife that resonates with readers. Beyond wanting to write appealing stories (Poe has been called a hack by some, I say give him a break, the man needed to make a living), this conflict aligns itself with Poe’s conception of poetry and literature. The primary focus of poetry for him is Beauty (elaborated on in “The Poetic Principle”), not passion or instruction and so any character who becomes too focussed on bodily desires, as William Wilson with his lust for the duchess must be eliminated. It also doesn’t hurt that Poe’s writing is super brutal: if he was alive today he would definitely be in a metal band. I want to look at three of his tales in particular that grapple with the fight between passion and reason: “William Wilson”, “The Black Cat”, and “The Cask of Amontillado”.
Although all writers have their obsessions and fixations, Edgar Allan Poe is known for being an author that both writes of obsession and is obsessive in his explorations of certain topics, one of his most famous being dead or dying women. Within both his poetry and prose are bereaved lovers of quasi-magical women. Focussing more on his tales though, the women of supernatural qualities of intellect and beauty die in some non-descript manner (usually epilepsy or something similar to consumption, except in the case of the pregnant “Morella”) and return in some way to haunt the narrator, either through an unnatural resurrection or because of a premature burial. The narrators within these tales also follow similar patterns: the narrator is often unreliable, having lapses in memory or being unable to differentiate dreams from reality[i]. There always seems to be a misreading or misunderstanding of the woman by the narrator, for example, the artist not noticing his bride is wasting away in “The Oval Portrait” or Egaeus not knowing Berenice is still alive. Poe remarks in “The Philosophy of Composition” that “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”[ii]; however, Poe does not consistently invoke these supernal women merely