Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Poe’s consumptive paradox

Gregory Rutecki
Cleveland, Ohio, United States

Tuberculosis may have killed more people than any pathogen in history1 leaving an array of terrible stigmata whenever it extinguished life. The essential image of tuberculosis in the eighteenth century was that of foul decay.2 Morgagni vividly described the road to a consumptive death as, “(she) threw up pus by expectoration” with the lungs the primary site of “repulsive putrefaction.”2 Writings of that era also described the breath of consumptives as a “stench, fetid or putrid.”2

On a more humanistic level however, tuberculosis has evoked a spectrum of emotions and attitudes that have varied with time and place.3 For Susan Sontag it was an existential illness that refined and redefined its victims.3 Until the twentieth century, it was a constant harbinger of wasting and mortality that drew its material from a common cultural image repertoire.4 Yet one era, the Romantic Age, remains a distinct outlier, choosing beautiful young women and their vulnerability to consumption as an aesthetically-infused paradigm for a good death. Art from the Romantic Age portraying women stricken with the “glamorous wasting disease” is unique. In this artistic genre, women paradoxically function as a “beautiful” allegory for dying.4

One American artist in the nineteenth century—Edgar Allan Poe—experienced the consumptive deaths of women intimates. The experiences led him to say, “…the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”5 He uttered these words despite the untimely consumptive deaths of his mother, foster mother, mother of a friend, and later, of his own wife. Poe literally “nourished himself on young women’s deaths, in the sense that art was for him a form of mourning.”6 He therefore liberally used beautiful consumptive women for aesthetic impact throughout his corpus. For him, consumption was unique: it was a disease that killed its victims without destroying their appearance.”6 His characterization diametrically breaks with earlier images of putrefaction. Furthermore, for Poe and his contemporaries tuberculosis was a disease that elevated sufferers spiritually. A study of Poe and his Romantic, aesthetic frame for consumption and death, sheds light on one culture’s attitudes toward a fatal disease.

A Romantic reframing: Consumption as an idealized good death

Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head, / Consumption, lay thine hand! Let me decay
Like the expiring lamp, unseen away, / And softly go to slumber with the dead.”2

Poe lived in the Romantic Age, a time of a radical cultural reshaping in attitudes toward illness, the deathbed, mourning, and worldview. Romantics would demonstrate a compulsive interest in the “dimensionality of death, the physical signs of dying and deathbeds, premature burials, and mourning.”7 The deathbed was viewed as the “last preserve of truth; it was the final opportunity to repent, admonish or encourage.”7 Phillipe Aries wrote of the Romantic Age’s “new ideal,” as “calmness in the deathbed, passing away as if falling asleep.”2 There would also be a drastic paradigm shift in regard to worldview. It would be an age where death’s sting would not seek consolation in the embrace of religion.7 Death would be displaced from a religious context and linked to natural processes. Romantics began a characterization of death that culminated a century later in Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd.

Poe’s corpus also adds an attraction to graveyards, elaborate pageants for death, burial, and explicit poetic mourning.7 Washington Irving, a contemporary mused, “The love that survives the tomb is one of the noblest attributes of the soul.”7

Poe’s aesthetic philosophy sought pure forms of beauty, encompassed by the feminine ideal—thereby reflecting the quintessential, spiritual yearnings of universal human nature.6 Aesthetic beauty for Romantics would champion a new paradigm, Woman-as-Beauty, and more so, that vulnerable and beautiful young woman dying of consumption. Poe’s was just one voice among many. Burke opined that “an air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty. An appearance of delicacy, and even fragility, is almost essential to it…the beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy.”5 A woman’s beauty began with her vulnerability. Her essential and ideal appearance would be intensified by consumption, not lessened.

But the aesthetic principle did not stop with a life of beauty. Dying in a prescribed way intensified female attractiveness and even brought about a further purification of loveliness.7 Poe heightened this implication as his Lenore took her undiminished, eternal, and universal feminine qualities to the grave, ones which she has not yet shared with her lover. “Lenore hath gone before…leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride…now so lowly lies…life upon her yellow hair, but not within her eyes…life still there upon her hair, the death upon her eyes.”7 Poe also exemplified his aesthetic principle in Annabel Lee. She is beautiful, dies young of consumption, and is spared decay—her appearance unmarred—as she is whisked away by her family and buried out of sight.6

Consumptive women as sublime beings: Aesthetic beauty embraces spiritual transcendence

Poe’s woman-as-beauty possessed more than aesthetic physical attributes. Her vulnerability and wasting earned her spiritual transcendence. Poe in his Philosophy of Composition observed, “when …men speak of beauty…they refer…just to that intense and pure elevation of the soul—not of intellect, or of heart…which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful’…the dying tubercular maiden would be represented commonly in all media and genres as a beautiful bride of heaven, an angel too pure and spiritualized to abide long in the material world of the crude body and less-refined minds.”6

Despite consumption’s feared presence throughout history, when it afflicted a beautiful, Romantic Age young woman, her “temporal loveliness approaches the perfection of eternal beauty, and theoretically at least the corpse of the dead woman briefly incarnates an ideality.”6 Although in many genres an early death was to be avoided, the consumptive “sublime” woman would be spared from aging, a form of decay, and as a consequence, a bad death. In many ways, Poe and his contemporaries likened the dying, consumptive woman to an angel. The idealized woman would wear, “the expression of a seraph…by her sickness and sorrow…as for something spiritual.”3 Poe’s contemporary Washington Irving said, “(I) evidently was smitten by the myth of the consumptive feminine sublime…I saw her fade rapidly away beautiful and more beautiful and more angelical to the very last.”8 The wasting of consumption seemed to lighten the physical encumbrances of the mortal body, freeing the soul to fully and spiritually express itself. “Margaret was not long for this world; in truth, she already appeared more spiritual than mortal…an ethereal lightness to her spirit.”8 Or in poetic meter:

“Oh, how sublime the very thought / that this frail form of mine
contains a spirit destined soon / in purer worlds to shine.”8

Poe himself captured women as spiritual and transcendent with the examples of Nesace—a transcendent perfection of loveliness—and through Ligeia, a medium by which her husband gains mystical insight.9 His most intimate Annabel Lee—in step with Transcendentalism—lives on with the moon (“moon never beams without bringing me dreams”) and stars forever (“the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes of the beautiful Annabel Lee”).

Was Poe an antifeminist: A coda

Modern criticism has added a novel perspective to Poe’s aesthetic utilization of young consumptive women as idealized examples of beauty, spirituality, and a good death. It is not difficult to surmise that Poe seems to objectify his women in an explicitly antifeminist manner.6 Viewing his work through an androcentric lens, Annabel Lee lived only to love and be loved by Poe.10 She was object for Poe and not subject. Poe’s intellectual heroines are first idealized and then feared when their attainment of knowledge threatens the patriarchal dominance of Poe’s male heroes.9 Another feminine Poe creation, Morella, a “woman of emotional intensity threatens the narrator with complexities he cannot understand, (but) he boasts she devotes herself solely to making him happy.”9 Debra Johanyak captured the tension between Poe’s adulation of woman and the suspicion he was anti-feminist: “Drawn to capable, intelligent women…he evidently feared such types…in their superlative qualities which threatened to overshadow his own genius and perhaps detract from their feminine nurturing, which Poe…relished…His writings project that attraction and fear…men of his period…shared in facing the literary advances of 19th Century…women.”9


  1. Daniel T.M. The history of tuberculosis. Resp. Med. 2006; 100: 1862-1870.
  2. Lawlor C. and Suzuki A. The Disease of the Self: Representing Consumption, 1700-1830. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 2000; 74:458-494.
  3. Dubos, Rene and Jean. The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick and London, 1952, viii.
  4. Bromfen E. Over Her Dead Body: Death, femininity, and the aesthetic. Routledge, New York, 1992. Pages xi, 67, 59.
  5. Stovall F. The Women of Poe’s Poems and Tales. Studies in English, 1925; 5:197-209.
  6. Hayes, K.J. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press, Pages 14, 13, 152, 148.
  7. Kennedy J.G. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987. Pages 3, 1, 8-9, 13, 67.
  8. Lawlor C. Transatlantic Consumptions: Disease, Fame, and Literary Nationalisms in the Davidson Sisters, Southey, and Poe. Studies in the Literary Imagination 2003; 36:109-137.
  9. Johanyak D. Poesian Feminism: Triumph or Tragedy. CLA Journal 1995; 39:62-70.
  10. Morisi EC. The Female Figure of Poe’s Poetry: A Rehabilitation. Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 2005; 38:17-28.

GREGORY W. RUTECKI, MD, received his Medical Degree cum laude from the University of Illinois, Chicago (1974). He completed Internal Medicine training at the Ohio State University Medical Center (1977) and a Fellow-ship in Nephrology at the University of Minnesota (1980). After 12 years of Private Nephrology Practice, he re-entered Academic Medicine at The Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (awarded “Master Teacher” designation) and became the E. Stephen Kurtides Chair of Medical Education at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare and Professor of Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. He now practices Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

Fall 2017



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