Poe's feminine ideal
Poe's vision of the feminine ideal appears throughout his work, in his poetry and short stories, and his critical essays, most notably “The Philosophy of Composition. ” Especially in his poetry, he idealizes the vulnerability of woman, a portrayal that extends into his fiction in stories such as “Eleonora” and “The Fall of the House of Usher. ” In these tales, and even moreso in “Morella” and “Ligeia, ” the heroines' unexpected capacities for life beyond the grave indicate that females may have more strength and initiative than the delicate models of his verse. The most significant trait of his ideal, however, is her role as emotional catalyst for her partner. The romanticized woman is much more significant in her impact on Poe's narrators than in her own right. The concept of using females merely as a means to a (male) end appears explicitly in “The Philosophy of Composition, ” wherein Poe also supplies his philosophy of beauty: “When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect – they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul – not of intellect, or of heart – upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating 'the beautiful'” (E&R, 16). Thus the value of what is viewed lies solely in the response induced in the observer, and the subject takes complete precedence over its object. Scenic images in Poe's work fall more into the realm of the sublime than the beautiful, so instead, the inspiration for the experience of Beauty in all its melancholy extremity is “the death… of a beautiful woman” and, appropriately, “equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover” (E&R, 19). The woman must die in order to enlarge the experience of the narrator, her viewer. Poe indulged his “most poetical topic in the world” by repeating this idea obsessively: poems on the subject include “Lenore, ” “To One in Paradise, ” “Sonnet – To Zante, ” “The Raven, ” “'Deep in Earth,'” “Ulalume, ” and “Annabel Lee”; tales include “Eleonora, ” “Ligeia, ” “The Oval Portrait, ” “Berenice, ” “Morella, ” “The Fall of the House of Usher, ” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, ” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, ” “The Assignation, ” “The Oblong Box, ” and “The Premature Burial. ” Floyd Stovall comments that Poe's poetic theory “has been partly substantiated by the excellence of these productions, most of which are among the best things that he did. There is in them, however, much repetition… and in spite of the poet's excellent art the theme grows monotonous. ” 1 Critics have used biographical and psychological arguments to explain this preoccupation of Poe's. Doubtless, Poe lost an unusual number of beautiful, relatively young, nurturing females in his lifetime: his mother, Eliza Poe; his foster mother, Fanny Allan; the mother of one of his friends, Jane Stanard; and his own wife, Virginia Clemm. Poe witnessed his mother's death before he turned three, and this traumatic event caused him not only to seek desperately for replacement caregivers but to re-enact this bereavement in his poetry and prose. Kenneth Silverman believes that in his tales Poe “nourished himself on a young woman's death, in the sense that art was for him a form of mourning, a revisitation of his past and of what he had lost, as if trying to make them right. Since nothing could, he returned to the subject of 'the one and only supremely beloved' again and again. ” 2 All three of these key biographical figures show signs of consumption, a disease that kills its victims without destroying their appearance. In fact, often the consumptive woman ironically becomes increasingly beautiful as her skin pales to translucence and her cheeks and lips redden from fever. Washington Irving depicted the demise of a young girl whom he observed in the throes of consumption as exemplifying “a kind of death that seemed...
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