Through his short stories and poetry, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the forefathers of Gothic literature in the United States. Through his unique writing style, and his interest in the macabre, Poe established a literary canon that had the capacity to intrigue and terrify his audiences at the same time. A recurring theme among Poe's short stories and poetry is the death of a beautiful woman, the eternal connection that the narrator of each respective work had with the deceased woman, and the supernatural. Both "Ligeia," a short story published in 1838, and "Annabel Lee," a poem published posthumously in 1849, integrate these elements into their narratives.
In "Ligeia," Poe writes about the death of not one, but two women. In the short story, the narrator experiences the loss of two of his wives, Ligeia and Rowena Trevanion. It is clear through the description of the women that the narrator is much more attached to his first wife than his second. In the short story, the narrator pays much more attention to describing his first wife than the second. In fact, the descriptions that he uses to illustrate Ligeia's many features are poetic. For example, when the narrator describes Ligeia's eyes he states, "For eyes we have no models in the remotely antique…The hue of the orbs was the most brilliant of black, and, far over them, hung jetty lashes of great length. The brows, slightly irregular in outline, had the same tint" (Poe 655). What is ironic is that the narrator is able to recall almost every minute detail about Ligeia's appearance and character, however he admits, "And now, while I write, a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom" (654). On the other hand, the narrator describes his second wife as "the successor of the unforgotten Ligeia -- the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena of Trevanion" (660).
In the short story, Rowena is the antithesis of Ligeia. Moreover, it can be argued that one of the only reasons that the narrator married Rowena is because he was under the influence of opium, which he was using in order to ameliorate his grief over losing Ligeia. It is especially disturbing the manner in which the narrator reacts towards his second wife. Inexplicably, the narrator "loathed [Rowena] with a hatred belong more to demon than to man" and his "spirit fully and freely [burned] with more than all the fires of [Ligeia's] whenever he his "his memory flew back…to Ligeia, the beloved, the august, the beautiful, the entombed" (661).
Additionally, the narrator did not quit his opium habit after marrying Rowena, which caused him to hallucinate on several occasions. These hallucinations, regardless on if they are fueled by the narrator's opium habit, appear to be supernatural in nature. For instance, when giving Rowena some wine to drink, "which had been order by her physicians," the narrator contends, "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" (662, 663). The narrator continues to say, "I cannot conceal it from my own perception that, immediately subsequent to the fall of the ruby-drops, a rapid change for the worse took place in the disorder of my wife" and by the fourth night, he "sat alone, with her shrouded body, in that fantastic chamber, which had received her as [the narrator's] bride" (663). The narrator, despite the fact that he has just lost Rowena, is overcome by a "thousand memories of Ligeia" (663).
In his grief-filled stupor, the narrator claims to see the corpse of Rowena transform into Ligeia. Through Ligeia's transcendence and the narrator's inability to emotionally and psychologically let go of Ligeia, it can be argued that there is an immortal and transcendent bond between Ligeia and the narrator. Not only is he haunted by every minute detail of her being, but he is constantly thinking of her, mistreating Rowena because she is everything that Ligeia is not and believes that Ligeia has come back to him after Rowena's death.
The poem "Annabel Lee" also uses the death of a beautiful woman to drive the narrative. Poe establishes that the narrator feels that there is an eternal and unbreakable bond between him and his beloved and that no entity, whether natural or supernatural, will be able to keep them apart. In the poem, the narrator contends that he and his beloved Annabel Lee "loved with a love that was more than love -- / [He] and [his] Annabel Lee;/With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven/Coveted her and [he]" (line 9-12). The narrator maintains that it was this great love that drove supernatural forces, in this case seraphs and angels, to tear the couple apart. The narrator continues, "The angels, not half so happy in heaven,/Went envying her and me -- / Yes! -- that was the reason (as all men know,/In this kingdom by the sea)/That the wind came out of the cloud by night,/Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee" (line 21-26). While the narrator in "Ligeia" does not advertise that he is eternally bound to his beloved, but rather is continuously overcome with his memory of her, the narrator in "Annabel Lee" states, "our love it was stronger by far than the love/Of those who were older than we -- / Of many far wiser than we -- / And neither the angels in heaven above,/Nor the demons under the sea,/Can ever dissever my soul from the soul/Of the beautiful Annabel Lee" (line 27-33). Moreover, like the narrator in "Ligeia," the narrator in "Annabel Lee" is constantly thinking of his lost love and states, "For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams/Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;/And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes/Of the beautiful Annabel Lee" (lines 34-37).
The setting in each of Poe's works, "Ligeia" and "Annabel Lee," contains Gothic literary elements that can be seen in Anglo-Irish Gothic literature and American Gothic literature, respectively. Common settings in Anglo-Irish Gothic literature are abbeys and castles due to the countries' long histories. In "Ligeia," the narrator purchases an abbey after Ligeia's death. The abbey happens to be located "in one of the wildest and least frequented portions of fair England" (660). Moreover, the abbey was imbued with several characteristics that would likely be found Anglo-Irish Gothic settings which include the bridal chamber, which "lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey;" a sole window, "a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue," that illuminated the room with a "ghastly lustre," and a "ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborated fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device," which is reminiscent of flying buttresses that pervade (660). On the other hand, American Gothic literature was heavily dependent on the natural environment of the land as American society history was not as established as European society and history, therefore forcing American Gothic writers to swap the horror and terror associated with the dark, twisting labyrinths that were often associated with castles and abbeys for the unknown and unexplored wilderness surrounding the American colonies and countryside. Given that "Annabel Lee" is set in an undisclosed "kingdom by the sea," it can be argued that the lack of Anglo-Irish Gothic setting elements allows the poem to fall under the canon of American Gothic literature. Moreover, the lack of detail in the description of the "kingdom by the sea," "heaven above," and what lies "under the sea," helps to emphasize the wild and unknown (lines 23, 30-31).
Due to the differing structure and format between "Ligeia" and "Annabel Lee," it can be argued that both the short story and poetic format have advantages and disadvantages. For example, "Ligeia"s structure allows for the psychological analysis of the narrator and provides insight into the various events and substances that contribute to his gradual descent into madness. Additionally, the short story's longer format allows the narrator to express his sentiments and the emotional disconnect that he feels towards Rowena. Moreover, the short story's structure allows Poe to include greater details regarding the narrator's surroundings, especially the bridal chamber that would transform into a death chamber. What is interesting about "Ligeia" is that it is not only a short story, but also contains a poem within the story's structure. One of the disadvantages to the short story format is that many of the details may appear to be convoluted, which may distract the reader from the story. Additionally, there is evidence to support that Poe often used the same short story outline or format in several similarly themed tales.