There’s a Poe page on the website, but I haven’t actually reviewed the works of Poe much.
Perhaps I’ll do a bit of that in the future.
For now, I’ll do this more obscure Poe tale since it is this week’s Deep Ones reading over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Eleonora”, Edgar A. Poe, 1841.
There’s a sense of spiritual autobiography and personal clairvoyance and introspection in this story. How the narrator reacts to the death of his beloved Eleonora mirrors Poe’s reaction to his wife Virginia’s death.
Yet, Virginia died in 1847.
The plot is relatively simple in its barebones.
The narrator loves Eleonora. Eleonora becomes ill, and the narrator renders a curse on himself, “a penalty the exceeding great horror of which will not permit me to make record of it here”, if he ever marries another woman. But Eleonora dies and, years later, he marries another woman.
As others have noted, you have to be very cautious about seeing Poe as a writer who is just pouring his life and personal fantasies out on the page. That way lies the Freudian madness of Kenneth Silverman’s biography.
Still, there are some elements of autobiography here. Eleonora is the narrator’s younger first cousin just like Virginia was Poe’s cousin.
Eleonora discovers “the finger of Death was upon her bosom”. That is too vague, though, to nicely comport with tuberculosis. And Virginia Poe’s tuberculosis wasn’t discovered until 1842
I read this story out of my go-to source for Poe: Stephen Peithman’s The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
He notes that this beautifully written story is Poe’s most romantic.
Eleonora and our narrator live in an isolated valley in a dreamy existence. There aren’t even any other people in the valley besides the narrator, Eleonora, and her mother. Mention is made of the narrator’s mother “long departed”. That close trinity of the three mirrors the Poe household with his mother-in-law Aunt Clemm, Elizabeth, and Poe.
The valley itself, as Peithman notes, probably owes something to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas though the story has no satire unlike Johnson’s story.
While it is an Edenic valley under a “tropical sun”, a “Valley of the Man-Colored Grass”, God doesn’t walk it. The narrator and Eleonora don’t go about naming animals either. No serpent enters it promising knowledge though there are beautiful “serpent-like trees”
Yet, Death is discovered (though, presumably, the narrator’s dead mother doesn’t make it a novel discovery) when Eleonora finds that token on her chest.
This happens, it should be noted, after Eros “enkindled within us the fiery souls of our forefathers”. But Poe doesn’t go for any equivalence of sexual awakening equaling death here.
The valley also has elements of other mythologies. The “River of Silence” flows through the valley which reminds one of the amnesia giving waters of Lethe. Peithman also sees some influence from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Xanadu”.
And hardcore Poe readers may be reminded of his story “The Domain of Arnheim” and its monumental landscaping.
The opening of the story stands in stark contrast to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Its narrator assures us he’s not mad. This narrator starts out by telling us he is now mad but he was not until he left the valley.
Dead women are, of course, a frequent Poe motif, and this story shares that with his “Berenice” and “Ligeia”.
Like the former story, the narrator and his lover are cousins and in seeming isolation from anyone else. That element of dream-like isolation from a past and the rest of humanity, a pocket universe of affection and romantic interest, is also a part of “Ligeia” where the narrator can’t even remember when he met his wife.
In “Berenice” the narrator obsesses he has buried his wife too early and takes her teeth as a memento. Here there is sort of a concern, when he remarries, that he has spiritually buried his former wife too soon.
There are, of course, several Poe stories — “Ligeia”, “Morella”, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” — where dead women do not rest easy and drive their former husbands or brothers mad. Here Eleonora does not rest either, but, on the night of the narrator’s remarriage, she visits him and salves his conscience at breaking his vow, absolves him of guilt.
But, you have to remember, the narrator says he’s now mad.
Peithman lists multiple interpretations:
- The narrator is mad.
- Eleonora has been reincarnated as the narrator’s new bride, Ermengarde.
- Eleonora understands the narrator’s need for love with a new woman.
He goes with the most obvious one, the last one, and I agree.
I think the narrator’s opening insistence that he’s mad is because, for many years after her death, Eleonora’s spirit is felt by the narrator, as she promised, in
the swinging of the censers of angels; and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley … winds that bathed my brow.
When he leaves the valley for the city, he no longer feels them and doesn’t again until after he weds.
The self-described madness of the narrator, I think, is that he thinks his infidelity, his broken promise, can’t be forgiven. Perhaps he thinks Eleonora’s returning “soft sighs” and voice that tells him
“Sleep in peace – for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved”
is a delusion. Perhaps Poe, in 1841, was imaginatively casting himself forward to a time in the future when his seemingly healthy Virginia was no more and wondering how he could, in good conscience, fill the gap in his heart left by her death.
More reviews of Poe related material are on the Poe page.