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Although the movement began more than 130 years ago, readers today are still trying to define the highly complex genre known as American Romanticism. Understanding the meaning of the literary period is challenging. Romanticism in America consisted of several common themes that questioned earlier ideas of literature, art, and philosophy. This feature will discuss Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia" (1838) to demonstrate how one writer uses supernatural themes than the more traditional, classical themes of the 18th century.
Ligeia's Unusual Beauty
Not only does Ligeia's unusual beauty represent a reoccurring theme throughout the story, but the text portrays Poe's method of rejecting the "ordinary," a common theme in past literature, while still promoting the ideas of Romanticism. One example of this is how Poe repeatedly points out how flaws in the classical appearance of Rowena, "the fair-haired, the blue-eyed," by comparing her to Ligeia whose "features were not of that regular mould which we have been falsely taught to worship in the classical labors of the heathen." Poe explains through the narrator how more exalted and meaningful Ligeia's beauty is specifically because she exhibits more natural features instead of the classical features. Poe clearly rejects classical beauty by killing off Rowena and having Ligeia, the heroine and the personification of Romantic beauty, live on through Rowena's body.
The narrator describes his beautiful spouse almost like a ghost: "She came and departed as a shadow." He also thinks her beauty, more specifically her eyes, as a "strange mystery." Her eyes make her seem unreal or superhuman because of her large "expressive" eyes that the narrator cannot explain except that they are "far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race." The rejection of the classical values and the welcoming of the supernatural through unusual, mysterious beauty indicates Poe's bias towards Romantic themes particularly since the narrator describes her eyes and voice further as "which at once so delighted and appalled me--by the almost magical melody, modulation, distinctness, and placidity of her low voice." In this statement, Ligeia almost frightens the narrator because of her "grotesque" and supernatural qualities. He cannot explain what he sees, but in Romanticism, many times the writers threw out the rational and replaced it with the irregular and unexplained.
When Did We Meet?
Another contradiction of the narrator's relationship with Ligeia is how he cannot explain how he knows her, or when and where they met. "I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia." Why is it that Ligeia has taken away his recollection? Consider how unusual this episode is since most people can remember the smallest details of meeting their true love. It seems that she almost has control over him. Then, her love for him demonstrates more Romantic themes of the supernatural since she returns from the dead through Rowena.
Often, Romanticist literature tried to disconnect itself with past literary styles by adding a theme of unusual remoteness concerning time and space. For example, Ligeia's identity has no clear beginning or end. This fact clearly demonstrates another example of this excessive, irregular, and unexplained style of writing commonly found in Romanticist literature. We never know how the narrator meets Ligeia, where she was after she dies, or how she is capable of resurrecting herself through another woman. All of this is in strict defiance of Restoration literature and a rejection of 18th-century writers' philosophies. By challenging what 18th-century writers labeled as appropriate themes, Poe writes "Ligeia" to promote his belief in Romanticist theories and ideas. His originality, specifically the use of the supernatural, is a consistent example of the innovation projected throughout Romantic literature.