Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1728
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia” begins with the narrator admitting that he “cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia.” Upon further examination, the narrator explains that his inability to remember may be because her many attributes “made their way into my heart” so gradually that they were not noticed by him. The narrator thinks that he may have met Ligeia in a “decaying city near the Rhine.” And although he cannot recall the specifics, he is quite certain that she descended from an ancient lineage. Can he remember her paternal name? No. Regardless, Ligeia is gone from this world. Clearly, “if ever she, the wan and the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.”
The narrator can quite clearly remember Ligeia’s appearance. She was tall and thin. She “came and departed as a shadow,” and the speaker admits that when she would enter his study, he would not notice her presence until her “marble hand” was on his shoulder. She had the radiant beauty of an “opium-dream,” a beauty that no other woman could ever hope to equal. She had pale skin like ivory and glossy, “raven-black” hair that fell in curls. Ligeia’s eyes were especially captivating, though in hindsight they might be described as strange. Looking back, the narrator cannot explain what mysterious essence made her eyes so unusual, but “they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.”
As the narrator continues to struggle to recall the memory of Ligeia, he notices how odd it is that people so often find themselves on the verge of remembering something, only to fail. The struggle to recall Ligeia’s eyes especially provides this phenomenon in the narrator. He goes on to explain that
I mean to say that, subsequently to the period when Ligeia's beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine, I derived, from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I felt always aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs. Yet not the more could I define that sentiment, or analyze, or even steadily view it.
The speaker goes on to explain how he has sometimes felt a similar moment of approaching epiphany while studying the natural world. Ultimately, it reminds him of a quote that Poe attributes to Joseph Glanvill:
And 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.
The narrator explains that he has traced, after years of thought on the subject, a “remote connection” between this passage and Ligeia’s “stern passion.”
The narrator continues, recalling how Ligeia’s unusual education helped him in his studies during the early years of their marriage. Ligeia was a talented linguist, particularly when it came to classical languages. Her talents were so impressive that “with child-like confidence,” the narrator had always trusted her guidance through the "chaotic world of metaphysical investigation.” The narrator confesses that his goal was to obtain “wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden,” suggesting that his studies were of an occult nature. The narrator goes on to characterize his investigations into the “metaphysical” to “the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed.” Before long, the narrator came to rely on Ligeia’s insights in order to progress in his studies. However, it was then that Ligeia became sickly.
The narrator recalls how he, in spirit, struggled with Azrael, the archangel of death. However, it was Ligeia that truly and passionately struggled. Sitting at her bedside with her hand in his, Ligeia would pour out her passions to the narrator. Now, he reflects, “that she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only, was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection.” He characterizes her love for him as "idolatrous." The narrator explains how she called upon him the night of her death and asked him to read her poetry that she had written.
Ligeia's poem opens with a description of an angel seated in a theater to see “a play of hopes and fears.” There are mimes that “in the form of God on high, / Mutter and mumble low, / And hither and thither fly.” The speaker of Ligeia’s poem explains how these mimes are like puppets because they do not control their fate. In the middle of this “mimic rout” comes a blood-red shape, crawling and writhing. It goes on to eat the mimes. The play comes to an end as the curtain, “a funeral pall,” descends. The angels understand that the play is “the tragedy, ‘Man,’ / And its hero the Conqueror Worm.” In other words, the mimes are meant to represent humanity, and the worm is meant to represent death. Mortality makes the life of every human a tragedy. As the poem concludes, Ligeia shrieks, leaps to her feet and, addressing God, asks whether no one will ever conquer death. With that, she returns to her deathbed. As she dies, the narrator hears her whisper again the quote attributed to Glanvill, that people yield to death through the weakness of their will. With her death, the narrator leaves the city near the Rhine with all of his wealth, which was made larger by his marriage to Ligeia.
After a time of wandering, the narrator eventually ends up in England. There, he repairs an old abbey in “one of the wildest and least frequented portions of fair England.” The abbey has a “verdant decay hanging about it.” The narrator lives a life of grief there and becomes addicted to opium. Eventually, he marries another, Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. Rowena is quite unlike Ligeia in appearance. She has fair hair and blue eyes. The narrator, who finds it difficult to remember so many things about Ligeia, describes his and Rowena’s bridal chamber in great detail, emphasizing that the tapestries were “spotted all over, at irregular intervals, with arabesque figures,” and he explains how these figures
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.
When the wind would blow through the chamber, the figures on the tapestries would become a “hideous animation,” writhing along the walls.
The narrator explains how in the early months of their marriage, Rowena dreaded his temper. He recalls how she did not truly love him, and that he hated her like a demon. Throughout his marriage to Rowena, the narrator could not help but recall Ligeia, especially during his opium dreams when he would call out her name. He would also call out her name during the day while walking and in the middle of the night, as though his passion could “restore her to the pathway she had abandoned.” However, Ligeia remained entombed, the narrator’s longing notwithstanding.
By their second month as man and wife, the narrator explains, Rowena fell ill. She suffered from fevers and illusions, perhaps caused by, the narrator speculates, the tapestries in their bridal chamber. Although Rowena’s recovery is slow, she eventually regains her health, only to fall sick again. The narrator recalls how Rowena would speak of sounds that only she could hear coming from the tapestries and of sights that he could not “perceive.” Without anyone else nearby to help Rowena, the narrator explains how he went to pour a goblet of light wine for his wife. Only then does he hear the sound of footsteps falling on the carpet and as Rowena “was in the act of raising the wine to her lips, I saw, or may have dreamed that I saw, fall within the goblet, as if from some invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room, three or four large drops of a brilliant and ruby colored fluid.” Rowena drinks the wine. The narrator explains how he could not have warned her over a perception that was almost certainly caused by his opium addiction. Regardless, Lady Rowena’s health does not improve, and she dies.
Looking at her corpse, the narrator thinks of Ligeia. At one point, he looks at the corpse and is convinced that Rowena still lives. He soon realizes he is mistaken:
in a short period it was certain, however, that a relapse had taken place; the color disappeared from both eyelid and cheek, leaving a wanness even more than that of marble; the lips became doubly shrivelled and pinched up in the ghastly expression of death; a repulsive clamminess and coldness overspread rapidly the surface of the body; and all the usual rigorous illness immediately supervened.
The narrator returns to his thoughts of Ligeia as he stands watch over Rowena’s corpse. However, after an hour, the narrator swears that he hears a sigh escape the woman’s lips. He studies the corpse and discovers a faint warmth and a slight heartbeat. Again, however, the body dies, leaving the narrator to his “visions of Ligeia.” The body continues to show signs of life throughout the night.
One last time, the body stirs and the narrator begins to wonder whether Rowena has conquered death. The body arises from the bed and advances to the middle of the chamber. Looking at the body, the narrator explains how the skin and mouth recall Rowena’s fair appearance. However, she seems taller, and as she removes the “ghastly cerements” from her head, her hair is “blacker than the raven wings of midnight.” The story ends when she opens her eyes, causing the narrator to cry out that “these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes—of my lost love—of the lady—of the Lady Ligeia!”