Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Oval Portrait

Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
From Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales

Pen and black ink and watercolor illustration by British artist Arthur Rackham (1867–1939) for “The Oval Portrait” in the 1935 edition of Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (London: George G. Harrap & Co.). See full image at Christie’s.
“My dear little wife has been dangerously ill,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote to a friend from his home in Philadelphia on February 3, 1842. Two weeks earlier, nineteen-year-old Virginia Poe was singing when she suddenly began coughing up blood—the first sign of the tuberculosis that would be the cause of her death five years later.

Poe’s correspondence during the following months alternated between despair and optimism, resignation and denial. “I have scarcely a faint hope of her recovery,” he wrote in one letter during the summer of 1842. “I am happy to say that Virginia’s health has slightly improved,” he wrote two weeks later, adding, “Perhaps all will yet go well.” The author Amanda Bartlett Harris later conveyed to an early biographer the account related to her by one of Poe’s neighbors:
[The] room where she lay for weeks, hardly able to breathe except as she was fanned, was a little place with the ceiling so low over the narrow bed that her head almost touched it. But no one dared to speak—Mr. Poe was so sensitive and irritable; “quick as steel and flint,” said one who knew him in those days. And he would not allow a word about the danger of her dying—the mention of it drove him wild.
In the weeks following the onset of Virginia’s illness, Poe wrote and published “Life in Death,” one of his final contributions to Graham’s Magazine while he was still its editor. As Kenneth Silverman notes in his biography of Poe, the story features a “Virginia-like narrator,” a “Virginia-like bride,” and a painter who “will not or cannot accept his bride’s dying.” Three years later, Poe made substantial changes to the story and republished it as “The Oval Portrait.”

“That he who many a year with toil of breath / Found death in life, may here find life in death,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the epitaph he prepared while enduring “death in life” from the lung infection exacerbated (and perhaps caused) by his longtime addiction to laudanum. Poe—who regarded Coleridge as “a giant in intellect and learning”—opens “Life in Death” with the woes of a traveler in the Apennine mountains of Italy. “My fever had been excessive and of long duration,” Poe’s narrator begins, having been severely wounded after an attack by highway robbers. He takes refuge in a vacant chateau and, having already lost too much blood to undergo the bloodletting that might ease his fever, he decides to dull the pain with a portion of “a little pacquet of opium” acquired in Constantinople. “I had never swallowed opium before,” he realizes. “Laudanum and morphine I had occasionally used, and about them should have no reason to hesitate.” Not sure of the proper dosage, he apparently consumes far too much of the drug and, in a daze, becomes fixated on an “oval portrait” in his room. The narrator, one might say, has become not only “Virginia-like” but also “Coleridge-like”; his “dreamy stupor” and “delirium” enhance and distort both his examination of the painting and the grotesque story-within-the-story that reveals how the lifelike portrait was created. Coleridge had similarly framed his “Allegoric Vision” with a gothic tale in which the narrator, journeying through the Apennines, seeks shelter during a storm in a chapel, where a pilgrim relates a strange, allegorical dream that takes place in the Valley of Life.

“The Oval Portrait,” Poe’s revision of his story, omits the entire opening scene of “Life in Death.” Instead, we learn only that the narrator, who has been somehow wounded, finds shelter in an abandoned chateau. Gone are the bandits, the fever, the opium, and the hallucinatory state, all of which Poe had evidently decided were distractions from the story’s focus: the oval portrait and the monomania of its artist, whose obsession for depicting life on his canvas causes him to ignore life itself. At the end of the nineteenth century, the notoriously caustic British critic Charles Whibley, unaware that there had been a previous version of the story, extolled Poe’s concision: “Another writer would take five pages to explain what Poe has touched off in the first five lines of ‘The Oval Portrait,’ and to how many writers has this rejection of all save the essential been a noble example?”

Notes: Ann Ward Radcliffe was best known as the author of the gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), whose terrifying events are set—like Poe’s tale—in a solitary castle high in the Apennine mountains.

Poe describes the portrait at the center of the story as “much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully.” In The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1969), Thomas Mabbott contends that “Poe’s inspiration was a painting by his friend Robert M. Sully,” citing as his source a story told in the early 1920s by Sully’s granddaughter, who described “an oval portrait—two-thirds life size—of a young girl with a blue ribbon, on which was a locket, around her bare neck and the locket was held in her hand.” The portrait has never been located. Robert Sully, a friend of Poe’s since their childhood years in Richmond, is also believed to have painted at least one portrait of Poe himself in the late 1840s, several years after “The Oval Portrait” was published; that painting has also never been found. Mabbott acknowledges, however, that contemporary readers of the tale would have assumed that Poe’s reference to “Sully” was to Robert’s famous uncle, Thomas Sully, whose portraits were widely commended for their lifelike attributes—far more than were his nephew’s markedly inferior paintings.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Poe’s story, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

The Oval Portrait

The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appenines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary—in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room—since it was already night—to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed—and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long—long I read—and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by, and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought—to make sure that my vision had not deceived me—to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom and even the ends of the radiant hair, melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filagreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea—must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which at first startling, finally confounded, subdued and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art: she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee: all light and smiles, and frolicksome as the young fawn: loving and cherishing all things: hating only the Art which was her rival: dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour and from day to day. And he was a passionate, and wild and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastlily in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter, (who had high renown,) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from the canvas rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead.”

First published in Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine (April 1842) as “Life in Death.” Revised for the April 26, 1845, issue of Broadway Journal.