Edgar Allan Poe's Short Story "Ligeia" as a text of the Romantic Period

Amerikanische Literaturwissenschaften

Term Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. History and Elements of the Romantic Period

3. Elements of the Romantic Period in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
3.1 Elements of Gothic literature
3.2 Mix of imagination and truth
3.3 Function of the narrator

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

On these pages the elements of the Romantic Period in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia“ should be analysed. Poe, “who has so drastically altered the landscape of the popular imagination” (Wright 375) and who “had such a powerful effect on his fellow artists” (Wright 375), created with “Ligeia” a typical text of the Romantic Period.

The text “Ligeia” is about the death of the young lady Ligeia. After her death her husband becomes addicted to opium. Although he spends most of his time thinking of Ligeia, he soon gets married with the lady Rowena Trevanion. After their marriage he brings Rowena into a bridal chamber. This chamber is full of funeral decorations, what attacks Rowena with horror. Because of that she gets ill and feels the presence of the dead Ligeia in the room. Finally Rowena dies and the narrator ends the story with Ligeia’s transformation into Rowena’s body. After this transformation the reader has to ask himself if Ligeia actually existed, if the whole story is true or if it only takes place in the imagination of the narrator.

To illustrate “Ligeia” as a romantic text I will give a short overview of the history and the elements of the Romantic Period. Afterwards I will explain these elements in Poe’s text “Ligeia” according to keywords like Gothic, Imagination, and the function of the narrator, which are usual for romanticism. Finally I will tell something about Poe’s theory concerning the short story to show on the one hand the importance of the self as a major theme of romanticism and on the other hand why Poe helped to establish the genre of science fiction, horror, and fantasy in his modern form.

2. History and Elements of the Romantic Period

The Romantic Period in American literature began in 1820 and ended in 1865 (Baym 425), the same year when the Civil War stopped. It was the time when issues like “the rapid rate of westward expansion and, more importantly, the issue of slavery” (Murfin, Ray 347) nearly divided the nation. It was the time of the revolutionary era, “when writers and painters invented a tradition that endowed the American Revolution with a history” (Pease 484).

The effort of cultural separation which followed the political separation from Britain that started on the Day of Independence in 1776, must be seen as an immense process in American history, because “the English- language tradition that Americans shared, (…), was British, constituted by Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s plays, and Milton’s Paradise Lost” (Baym 425). Many educated Americans in the new Republic now believed that they needed an own national poem and poetry or prose, which handled with “subjects such as American Indian legends, stories of colonial battles, and celebrations of the American Revolution” (Baym 426f.). Therefore the main priority for romanticism consisted in establishing an own national background.

A famous name which is related strongly to Romanticism in America is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is most associated with the utterance of Transcendentalism. This “was an idealistic philosophical and literary movement that arose in New England” (Murfin, Ray 347). The idea of Transcendentalism “maintained that each person is innately divine, with the intuitive ability to discover higher truths” (Murfin, Ray 347). Therefore transcendentalists “praised self- reliance, and gloried in the natural goodness of the individual” (Murfin, Ray 347). Poe was called “the jingle man” (Koster 81) by Emerson and the New England intellectuals, because he took an opposite view to the idealism of the transcendentalists. Especially according to “The Poetic Principle” , what he called “the heresy of The Didactic” he said that the transcendentalists wanted to find a moral in every poem, which should be impressed by “the ultimate object of all Poetry”: (Koster 81) the truth. Poe on the opposite wanted that “the only legitimate aim that a poet could have was to create a work of beauty” (Koster 82). Poe had the opinion that “the most poetic of all themes is the death of a beautiful woman” (Bonaparte 228). “Ligeia” therefore contained to the so- called “marriage group”, which concern the deaths of beautiful young women (Wright 369).

Usually you can divide this era into romanticism before Emerson and romanticism after Emerson. The generation before Emerson “wanted to displace revolutionary violence with the Enlightenment ideals they shared with European romanticism” (Pease 484). Therefore they created a mix between European models and the American artists who tried to achieve a comparable culture (Pease 484). Emerson reformed these ideals and “transformed the American revolution into an event that took place within the individual’s consciousness” (Pease 484). He wanted to be independent of influences from other cultures and created something new in American literature. Because of that “literary anthologists have consecrated Emerson as the founder of a national literary heritage” (Pease 485).

Edgar Allan Poe belonged to the generation before Emerson, because he had a “considerable gift for imitation” (Wright 367) and a “habit of half quoting from his favorite authors” (Wright 367). Therefore you can assume that Emerson criticized this generation in his 1836 manifesto Nature (Pease 486). So he stated that their works are lend to European models and claimed “a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition” (Pease 486). After the publication of Emerson’s Nature typical criteria of American romanticism were pointed out. These criteria contained “originality of viewpoint, singularity of style, and uniqueness of execution” (Pease 487).

Poe fulfilled these criteria in spite of imitation, because he offered “us what he called a suggestive indefiniteness of meaning with a view of bringing about vague and therefore spiritual effects” (Wright 367). In his theories concerning the short story he stated that his aim was “the effect of his tale on the reader” (Wright 371). Corresponding with the criteria of Emerson he claimed that “this effect should (…) be single and unified” (Wright 371). He illustrated this by saying: “When readers finished the story they ought be left with a totality of impression, and every element of the story- character, style, tone, plot, and so on- should contribute to that impression” (Wright 371). His aim of overriding importance was not a didactic one, because “he thought that the meaning of a tale should be indefinite and ambiguous” (Wright 371). Instead of this he wanted to give readers “access to the world of supernal beauty” (Wright 371). This idea can be expressed by the phrase “art- for- art’s- sake”. This statement of the total autonomy of art, which disconnects art at the same time from daily life (Davidson 243), will be very important when asking yourself if Poe is telling a true story with “Ligeia”.

Because of his critical and aesthetic principles Poe was called “America’s first real critic” (Murfin, Ray 348). Another important merit, which Poe achieved, was the establishing of “the modern mystery or detective tale” (Murfin, Ray 348). As examples you can mention “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Purloined Letter”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, and “The Gold Bug” (Shorto V).

To point out the most important elements of the romantic period, you can say, that “romantic writers generally emphasized emotion over intellect; the individual over society; inspiration, imagination, and intuition over logic, discipline and order; the wild and natural over the tamed” (Murfin, Ray 347). Romantic artists were in general different from other human beings, because they “projected their art into the gray and nether world of imagination and disclaimed the world of ostensible reality, they tended to find the distinctions ever more apparent” (Davidson 249).

3. Elements of the Romantic Period in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”

3.1 Elements of Gothic literature

Gothic literature was established in the eighteenth century. Famous writers for this type of literature were the English novelist Anne Radcliff and the German story writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (Wright 368). In the nineteenth century Gothic literature, especially the gothic short story became “one of the most popular forms of magazine literature in England and America” (Wright 368).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Edgar Allan Poe's Short Story "Ligeia" as a text of the Romantic Period
Amerikanische Literaturwissenschaften
"The American Short Story"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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396 KB
Edgar, Allan, Short, Story, Ligeia, Romantic, Period, Amerikanische, Literaturwissenschaften
Quote paper
Jessica Horn (Author), 2004, Edgar Allan Poe's Short Story "Ligeia" as a text of the Romantic Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126222


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