Edgar Allan Poe

 Poe is as well known for his lifestyle as for his work. He is quite famous for being dissipated, marrying cousins, and things like that. He is an early Jerry Lee Lewis. Dying at an early age, he was deeply in debt. He had a really tough life. His parents died when he was younger. They were actors. Poe was raised by a man who more or less disowned him when he got older. He was hoping for some kind of inheritance and didn't get it, so he had to make his own way.

We find in Poe the dark side of the romantic transcendentalists in Poe and in Hawthorne. The romantics were not all bright and light. Poe is very gothic. "Ligeia," "The Raven," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are all very gothic works. There is something that is going on in "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" which is a preoccupation with the line between life and death. Where do you cross from one side to the other and can you come back? "Ligeia" does it somewhat spiritually. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" we find it literally. There was a big craze at the time about being buried alive, partly because of Galvanism. What was Galvanism? Ben Franklin did experiments with Galvanism. He flew a kite. Galvanism is now called electricity. He did other experiments like cooking a turkey for guests with electric current. They also discovered that if you put electrodes on the muscle of a dead animal what could you make the animal do? The animal would jump. They had enough cases of people being shocked back to life. We see it all the time on the emergency shows now. They saw enough to start to wonder, well, after the heart has quit beating, after you have quit breathing, after you for all intense purposes are dead, and, yet, then you came back. Well, how long can that be prolonged? We know it is not very long now, but this was in the day when you buried people fairly quickly and without the benefit of embalming. Well, it was possible to be buried alive, so they made these special coffins which had a little airpipe and at the end of it a bell. If you woke up in the coffin, you would have air and you could ring the bell so people start running. Hopefully, they would run to you to give help and not away.

Poe does have a wild imagination, but he is playing to an audience that is already ready for this.


What is the principal characteristic of "Ligeia"? What is it that distinguishes her from everybody else? What did she have more of? She is intelligent, but intelligence was the mark of the enlightenment era not the romantic era. What is of their most important qualities? Will power. The will is so important.

The giant will succumbed to a power more stern. And I thought, as I gazed upon the corpse, of the wild passage in Joseph Glanvill. "The will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will." If you had enough willpower, you wouldn't die. You would make yourself take another breath. The will is the romantic theme. I told you we would be coming back across these themes.

Rowena and Ligeia are opposites. Ligeia is dark, mysterious, a force of nature, her with great willpower. Rowena is light, innocent and passive. By the way, at the time being blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned was a sign of your purity. We have had a lot of movie stars from then to now, so the image has changed somewhat, but at the time it was a sign that you were sweet, good, pure, mild-mannered, or something like that. We see again the stereotypes.

What is his opinion about his new wife? Was he totally, madly in love with her? No, he is still in love with his old wife. What does he use to make him feel better? He is taking the drug opium. Can we totally trust what he is seeing? He is what they call an unreliable narrator. Sometimes the narrator in a story can lie to us. Other times they may simply be out of touch themselves. You have to analyze the narrator and figure out can this really happen. We are not totally sure at the end of this story if this has happened or not.

What does happen at the end if we can trust him? Rowena dies, and Ligeia takes over her body and comes back. Is this a happy ending?

It was blacker than the raven wings of the midnight! And now the eyes opened of the figure which stood before me. "Here then at least," I shrieked aloud, "can I never -- can I never be mistaken -- these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes of the lady -- of the lady Ligeia!" He is shrieking, so it is hard to know if this is good or bad for him. Either way, she's back. What brought her back? Her will. She was too strong to allow death to overcome her.


"The Purloined Letter"

Last time we talked about the desire to be original that began in the romantic period and comes down to today. No longer content to tend the monuments of our fathers, the romantics wanted to be original. It is incredibly hard to come up with something truly original. In this story, Poe does just that. What kind of story is this? This is a detective story. The most famous fictional detective is Sherlock Holmes. Poe only wrote three of these. Only two of them are widely anthologized; this one and "Murders in the Rue Morgue." Nevertheless, he started a whole new kind of literature that we never had before, and that is the detective story. This is his original contribution.  The annual award for the best detective story is even called the "Edgar" in Poe's honor (It's their version of the Oscar or Grammy award).  There are a few precedents.  In the apocryphal section of Daniel, for example, two men try to blackmail the beautiful Susanna into committing adultery with them.  She refuses, and they testify that they saw her commit adultery under a tree in her garden.  Before the crowd stones Susanna, however, the young boy Daniel offers to cross-examine the men.  They are brought in separately, & Daniel asks them one question: "Which tree?"  It's much like the story about the "which tire was flat?" final.  Despite these precedents, Poe is still credited with making this a distinct, popular genre (type of literature).

What he is most famous for is his gothic stories, but such tales had been around a while and were already common in his time.

What he creates is this idea of the detective story, and there is a typical way that the story works. The story hinges normally on a dual plot structure. The first part is the crime -- what has occurred, who did it, how, and why. This is the story. Then you have a second story -- the person investigating the crime pieces together the first story. These two, of course, are interwoven so that you have the two working together.

There are various types of detective stories -- the open, where you know from the beginning who the criminal is, and you watch the detective try to find out. The closed mystery is where neither you nor the detective knows who the criminal is at the beginning, and then the detective reveals the answer to you at the same time that he or she reveals it to the people in the book. This mystery is closed in the sense that we do not know the hiding place of the letter until the end.

One reason that detective stories are so popular is that you have a balance of newness and continuity in each story. Where do you get the continuity? What does every Sherlock Holmes book have in it? You have Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, 221B Baker Street (the setting), and some of the detectives who come in over and over again. In a TV series, you would have the same thing. This is the continuity. Where does the newness come from? We have different in criminals every time. Sometimes they will be back occasionally, but the crime is the new part. In this way, the author can constantly work in new things and yet have some sort of basic relationships there that are already established. People read Sherlock Holmes for the interactions between Holmes and Watson as much as they do for the solving of these mysteries. Apparently, Poe did not place great stock in this, at least not enough to write a lot of these. The reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes stories was to make money. He thought this was his inferior writing, and he kept trying to quit. In fact, one time he killed off Sherlock Holmes by throwing him down in a ravine. He had to resurrect him because people wanted him back.

"The Purloined Letter" shows one of the principle traits of the romantic detective. The police, are they more representative of the enlightenment or the romantic period? The enlightenment. How do they go about searching the apartment? They do it very analytically. Let's put out a chalk line almost. They used squares to search everything in there and then move on to the next square. This does not reveal the answer to them. It is on the symbolic level showing the limits of the enlightenment. It can only take you so far. It can analyze, but it cannot comprehend mystery. So how does Dupin solve the mystery? What was it that he analyzed? He didn't analyze the apartment because that is what they did. He analyzed the person. This is the kind of person I am dealing with. Sherlock Holmes would do this over and over. He would put himself in the mind of the criminal. This criminal thinks this way and, therefore, will do something. This is a romantic leap. It is similar to romantic projection. You come up with a vision of the world and then impress that vision upon the world around you. You create the world in your own image. This is almost the opposite of that. You are taking into yourself that which is outside of the world, but you have to do it through this sort of sympathy. You have to get yourself into the mind of the criminal. This is something you could not do with the enlightenment perspective. You would have to do it from the romantic perspective.

He starts out from the romantic perspective and analyzes this man. The guy is both a poet and mathematician. The math represents enlightenment. Poetry represents the romantic period. He has both. He is very dangerous. The prefect doesn't understand him.

How does Dupin solve the problem? Where does the letter turn out to be? The letter is in his letterbox. He has turned it around. He hid it out in the open where anybody can see it. He had written on the backside in black ink instead of red. He made it look dirty and torn like something of no importance, so the police never looked at it. Police today go through your trash. Things like this would not put them off. Back then the police were not very adept to looking for things. They never looked beyond the obvious; therefore they never opened the letter to see what was in it.


"The Raven" and "Philosophy of Composition"

" The Philosophy of Composition" is Poe's explanation of how he came to write "The Raven." "The Raven" is one of these dark, brooding gothic poems. We would assume that he came up with the idea in a dark, brooding gothic way. But how does he do so? According to his account, which we may not be able to rely on, he used a very systematic approach. He wanted to make an effect on people, therefore he started out with the desired response. What response does he want us to have? It is a great nineteenth century term that we don't use anymore. He wants us to feel melancholy. Melancholy is feeling sad and blue. How do you get this effect in people? What is a melancholy event? Death.

Step two is death. The death of whom? Of a beautiful woman. We have to kill off a beautiful woman because that is the most melancholy sort of death. We are going to start off with a beautiful dead woman and then go from there. Everything hinged from this. The guy has lost his girlfriend or wife, and he is sitting around moping about it. This is what leads us into the story. By the time the story picks up he has already lost her and is dealing with the loss and not dealing well with it very well either.

He comes up with a word. What word is he going to use over and over? "Nevermore". Who would say a word like that over and over? A bird might do it. How about a parrot? No, a parrot is too beautiful and too colorful. What bird will we choose instead? The raven is the bird.

The raven is an important animal mythologically speaking. According to Levi-Straus and his structural anthropology, it serves as a mediator between herbivores and carnivores. The carnivore chases down its prey and then eat it. Herbivores catch a plant. The raven will do neither. It eats animals that are already dead. In a sense it is on the border between a herbivore and carnivore. It is a liminal figure. It is also on the border between a human and an animal. How is it like the animals? It is a bird. It flies around. How is it like the humans? You can teach this bird to talk. It thus has some similarities to humanity. Talking is one of the most human characteristics. The fact that this bird is able to mimic what we think of as being the most human. The parrot shares the liminal characteristics of being between the human and the animal.

The raven, because of its color, is another boundary. What is that? What does it represent to us? Death. Western cultures represent black with death. Yes, it is alive and walking around. Here is a creature that is on the border lying between herbivore and carnivore and different kinds of animals. It is on the boundary between human and animal and the boundary between life and death and really between natural and supernatural. Are you a bird? Are you a devil? Are you an angel? The raven serves as a link between all of these and is a spooky creature for that reason.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door
" 'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -- Only this, and nothing more."
We start out sitting around the house and somebody knocks on the door. Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had tried to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -- Nameless here for evermore.
He is trying to get over his melancholy over his lost Lenore. Who is she in his life? We are not quite sure. Then he opens the door. Darkness there and nothing more. He opens the door and there is nothing out there. He wonders what it is. He cries out, "Lenore!" An echo murmurs back, "Lenore." Like the bird, the echo has the characteristic of human speech and yet not reason so that it just echoes back what you say to it. Then he hears the tapping on the window lattice. Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he, not an instant stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door --
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door-- Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Is there an explanation to this? Can the bird just happen to be there? Well, that is what he thinks. Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore --
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!" Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no sublunary being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

With such name as "Nevermore."
This is an unreasoning creature which is just saying the one word it knows. Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends have flown before
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before." Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
He is saying the bird will lead me to the way that Lenore left me. The bird says that no, he won't. It fits. Everything he says to him fits. The word nevermore fits in. He begins to see that maybe there is more there than just a bird. "Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster -- so, when Hope he would adjure,
Stern Despair returned, instead of the sweet Hope he dared adjure That sad answer, "Nevermore!"
The bird had a master who was down on his luck and taught the bird this one word nevermore. This is sort of a grim word to hear from the bird and remind him of how unhappy he was. Now so far, is this a supernatural or a natural explanation? This is natural because it could happen to anybody. But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust, and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore --
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore Meant in croaking "Nevermore"
All those g's in the last line is called illiteration. This is using the same letter over and over. Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and Nepenthe from they memories of Lenore!
Let me quaff this kind Nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!" Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
He is saying that the raven should help him forget Lenore. Due to the fact that it has been sent by God and the angels, he has started a supernatural side to it. The raven says that he is not going to let him forget her. "Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! -- Is it sent by God or Satan? Is it just a bird blown in from a store. Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore. Who is the Tempter? Satan is the Tempter. Did the Tempter of Temptest send you? Are you supernatural or natural? Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore? Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
Is there peace? The raven says no. "Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore --
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore." Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
He tries to chase the bird off, and the raven won't go. And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor Shall be lifted -- nevermore!
The raven is not leaving; the poet's comfort will never arrive.


 "The Fall of the House of Usher"

The basic story is that he goes home with Roderick to the House of Usher. What is the status of the house of usher? What is it like? The house is falling apart. It is linked to the status of the family. When we say that the House of Usher is falling, we have a dual meaning. The house is the literal building, but also you talk about a House of Usher in terms of the family of Usher. It is coming to an end, too. With Roderick and his sister, the line will die out. There is a lot of emphasis on decay, degeneration, a weakening over time. There is a lot of this in the gothic literature. People who just aren't able to keep up. Roderick and his sister are two of those. What unusual thing happens to his sister? What becomes of her? Does she die? No.  They bury her alive.

Poe was tapping into a fear that many felt in this period.  Experiments in galvanism (electricity) were indicating that life might not automatically stop with the heart.  We are familiar with the prinicple now - every medical show uses electric paddles to restart people's hearts.  But how long can the signs of life be absent before the life is gone altogether?  It was more of a problem in the days before wide-spread embalming.  In theory, an overly-quick burial could wind up with a living person in the grave.  Some people went so far as to buy special coffins.  If they awoke in the coffin, they could ring the bell above the ground to signal that they were alive.

Her brother suspects what is going on, but he is so upset and guilty over the fact that he buried her alive that he doesn't go and let her out. She breaks out.