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Groups of adjectives in Poe’s “Ligeia” and Baudelaire’s translation of them: a source-oriented approach

Joan Bertrand
p. 87-98


Dans “Ligeia”, où Edgar Poe oppose les descriptions d’une femme adorée et d’une femme détestée, les adjectifs jouent un rôle central pour étayer les contrastes établis entre le bonheur et le profond désespoir. Selon le contexte, Poe privilégie soit le rythme et la sonorité, soit la syntaxe afin d’intensifier l’effet produit. Cet article analyse les groupements d’adjectifs dans “Ligeia”, en parallèle avec un commentaire sur les stratégies de la traduction de Baudelaire. On tente ainsi de cerner les défis lexicaux, syntaxiques et stylistiques qu’elle relève.

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Texte intégral

1In “Ligeia”,1 Poe relates the narrator’s fond memories of his beautiful and learned wife, the Lady Ligeia, after whose death he married the unlovable Lady Rowena. On her death, he sees her metamorphosed into the Lady Ligeia. The tale abounds in contrasts of all sorts: to compare the two ladies —the raven-haired Ligeia, the fair-haired Rowena; the Rhine initially, followed by a dreary English abbey; his delight with Ligeia, his desolation at losing her, his moment of folly when he marries Rowena; Ligeia’s open-mindedness to learning, and the stifling huis clos in the abbey’s depressingly dark, Gothic-decorated bed chamber. Descriptions —and hence adjectives— are vital to Poe’s contrastive intention, and their variety, and combinations, of alliteration, melody and rhythm are a factor of unity in the text, as well as a device used to enhance the intensity of the now joyful now desperate passion felt by the narrator. In an analysis of each of these two different stylistic aims in Poe’s use of the adjectival group, we will firstly bring out his emphasis on rhythm and sonority, then his use of adjectives to produce a startling effect. At each stage, a comparison with Baudelaire’s translation will show the lexical, syntactical and stylistic barriers between the languages when a desire to transpose the original intention is at stake.

2A key intention of Poe’s throughout is to highlight the extremes of beauty and joy, and of despair. Running through the gamut of possibilities in English for placing adjectives before the noun, he constantly doubles —or sometimes trebles— the adjectives. The groups he forms are:


Adjective + and + adjective + noun (A and AN)


Adjective + adjective + noun (AAN)



Adjective, + adjective + noun (A,AN)



Adjective, + adjective, + adjective + noun (A,A,AN)


Adjective, + adjective, + and + adjective + noun (A,A, and AN)


The/those + adjective, the/those + adjective + noun (the A, the A, the AN)

3Poe gives each form a precise role to play, where both the comma and “and” are invested with a deep significance. In each case, it is the context —smooth and harmonious, or hesitant and grating— that dictates the form chosen.

4We notice firstly that forms a) and b) are used by Poe to give priority to rhythm, sound melody, speed and crescendo possibilities. With forms c) and d), Poe leans more heavily on the meaning of the adjective, and stresses it with a mixture of punctuation and repetition, as we shall see in a second part.

Poe’s way of emphasising sound

Adjective + and + adjective + noun (A and AN)

5The use of this structure appears in the following sentences -the location in “Ligeia” of the examples given is indicated in parentheses: (page/line)

thrilling and enthralling

[...] the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language[...] (122/7)

large and luminous

[...] a sentiment [...] aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs (128/26)

dim and decaying

[...] the lonely desolation of my dwelling in the dim and decaying city by the Rhine (138/1)

i) gloomy and dreary

ii) remote and unsocial

The gloomy and dreary grandeur of the building [...] had much in unison with the feelings of utter abandonment which had driven me into that remote and unsocial region. (138/8)

pallid and rigid

[...] I turned my glances to the pallid and rigid figure upon the bed (148/4)

6This is the structure Poe uses to convey not so much semantic meaning (since the two adjectives are not very dissimilar in meaning) as melody and rhythm through repeated syllables, alliteration and a built-in crescendo effect:

  • in “thrilling and enthralling”, thr is repeated, as is lling;

  • in “dim and decaying”, the initial d is repeated;

  • in “gloomy and dreary”, the second syllable, in y, rhymes;

  • in “remote and unsocial”, the diphthong o is repeated;

  • in “pallid and rigid”, the second syllable id is repeated;

  • in four examples, the number of syllables increases in the second adjective.

7In the others, the morphology of the words is very similar (“gloomy”/“dreary”; “pallid”/“rigid”), and the number of syllables the same.

8Also, the very structure “adjective + and + adjective” (with “and” and no comma in between) emphasises the rhythmic aspect with the strong/weak combination. It is thus the poetic effect attached to the pair of words that takes precedence over the literal meaning. In the third sentence of the first paragraph, there is a telling example of Poe’s desire from the start to impress on the reader a feeling of mounting tension and mystery through a musical and chanting play on words, sounds and repetitions:

[...] the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown.

  • 1 Edgar Allan Poe, “Lowell’s’A Fable for Critics’” (1849). Quoted in Kay S. House, Reality and Myth i (...)
  • 2 Ibid., p. 149.

9Here is an accumulation of Poe’s doubling of words that are almost identical in sound: “thrilling and enthralling”/“steadily and stealthily”/“unnoticed and unknown”. From the start, therefore, Poe opts for a more concrete description where each adjective nourishes the tale with the richness of its meaning, as we will see he does later in the story. His aim initially is to mesmerise the reader into a throbbing universe of mystery where one adjective is immediately confirmed and reinforced by the next, and all at a brisk pace thanks to the fluidity of repeated sounds and syllables, untrammelled by intrusive punctuation. Indeed we can’t help being reminded of the criticism levelled at Poe by Lowell and mentioned by Poe himself in an appraisal of Lowell: “[Poe] talks like a book of iambs and pentameters”1. There is undoubtedly in Poe’s writing a dominant poetic drive that could be seen to detract from a more profound sincerity: “the heart seems all squeezed out by the mind” (Lowell again)2. Here, our point is simply to retain Poe’s seemingly insuperable attraction to rhyme and melody, whether it reduces his literary seriousness in the eyes of some, or aims to alleviate, by dilution, the depths of despair felt by Poe/the narrator.

10The other examples of this structure in the text may lack the element of alliteration:

  • [her face was] an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than [...] (124/22)

  • [...] after a few months of weary and aimless wandering [...] (138/5)

  • I feel how much even of incipient madness might have been discovered in the gorgeous and fantastic draperies [...] (138/21)

  • the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. (138/30)

11But they nevertheless retain the crescendo effect, and the relative proximity in meaning. Even “fair-haired and blue-eyed” is a rather expected pairing which is almost one entity and is close to the cliché description, all the more since this is the only adjectival description we have of Lady Rowena: she is always described by Poe in verbal terms, doing this and feeling that, but the only physical detail given of her is “fair-haired and blue-eyed”, which of course in itself is the only one we need to have since it aptly underlines her as being the antithesis of Lady Ligeia, who sports “raven-black tresses”.

12The A and AN structure, in all the cases above, contains two adjectives that again are not very far apart in meaning. Poe, however, is concentrating on producing an effect —of airiness, tedium, gorgeousness or fairness— where the context calls for an accumulatan> o —oto githe to caeral on phm througa simpg ano havelug and uso a thro profouégieghambonnt o —octure, in and b) are cotrebhey hart to ihe aveA anFthe he artie,Gve

12Poe elaire’s translation wilr an a and ftive noroupings, tolved. id termsoun, he croer witan> id termsoun, he c/span> only terpan>