In 1882 the American journalist and writer Lew Vanderpoole requested an audience of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), because he needed the king’s help for the settlement of a complicated heritage. The interview was business-like, until King Ludwig noticed an article about Edgar Allan Poe among the many papers on the table, an article that Vanderpoole was writing for a French magazine. The king suddenly became excited, and with shining eyes he turned to Vanderpoole:
“Is it a personal account of him? Did you know Poe? Of course you did not, you are too young. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am. Just for a moment I thought that I was in the presence of someone who had actually known that most wonderful of all writers! To me Poe was the greatest man ever born – greatest in every particular. But like so many rare gems, he was fated to have his brilliancy tarnished and marred by constant clashings and chafings against common stone. How he must have suffered under the coarse, mean indignities which the world heaped on him! And what harsh, heartless things were said of him when death had dulled the sharpness of his trenchant pen! You will better understand my enthousiasm when I tell you that I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour, if in that hour he would unbosom to me those rare and excuisite thoughts and feelings which so manifestly were the major part of his life.”
This emotional outburst from King Ludwig II was the beginning of a two hour conversation with Vanderpoole, in which the king not only expressed his boundless admiration for Poe and his work but also explained the similarities between Poe’s personality and his own. And these similarities are indeed many and remarkable.
King Ludwig II was probably one of the first admirers of Poe in Germany. The king, who was fluent in French, knew Poe’s work from the French translations by Baudelaire, because no German translations of Poe’s work were published before 1904. Baudelaire and Mallarmé translated Poe’s work into French, which was also the common language of the entire European élite at that time. This fact was instrumental for Poe’s amazing conquest of the European continent during the second half of the 19th century, as is once more shown in the case of King Ludwig II.
King Ludwig II is still a controversial figure, although in Bavaria he is now usually regarded with sympathy. Internationally he is best known for the extravagant and fairy-like castles and palaces that he built, of which the castle ‘Neuschwanstein’ is the most famous one. This castle is considered by many as the most beautiful castle in the world, not only from an architectural point of view but also for its amazingly decorated interior. It is now a major tourist attraction and an inspiration for artists, architects, writers, movie directors and Disney World. But also two other castles that were created by Ludwig II, ‘Herrenchiemsee’ and ‘Linderhof,’ are famous for their beauty and artistic extravagance in the exteriors and interiors. During his life King Ludwig II almost ruined his country with his creative obsession for architecture and castles, but today these magnificent buildings are important sources of revenue for the state of Bavaria.
The author Alfons Schweiggert (Munich, Germany) had already written several books about the legendary King Ludwig II, but when he read the story about the encounter of King Ludwig II and the American journalist Lew Vanderpoole, he decided to take up the study of Poe. Not with the special intention to know more about Poe but to get an even better understanding of King Ludwig II, the man who felt such a deeply personal and intense spiritual bond with Poe.
This book explores the many similarities between Poe and King Ludwig II, not only from the artistic and spiritual point of view but also in their actual lives. For instance, Ludwig’s wet-nurse suddenly died when he was just one year old while Poe’s mother died when he was almost three. So at an early age, both men lost the first person with whom they had a strong bond. Both had a tense and distant relation with their fathers, whom they actually disliked. But also both died at almost the same age, both under mysterious circumstances. Poe was 40 years and nine months old when he died in Baltimore of causes that have never been clarified. Dr. Morgan, the hospital physician who took care of him during his last days, was supposedly a friend of Poe. King Ludwig, who was a good swimmer, was 40 years and ten months old when he was found dead in only three feet of water near the shore of a lake, next to his dead personal physician and friend Dr. Gudden who had been wounded and possibly strangled. These two mysterious deaths have never been solved, and, like in Poe’s case, the speculations and theories about Ludwig’s death continue to this very day. And after death, both men were declared insane, and their characters were assassinated by their ennemies. There are even doubts if both Poe and Ludwig really found their final resting places in the two tombs that bear their names.
King Ludwig II was an enigmatic and mysterious personality, also to himself. He built his castles not as places to live in, but rather as attempts to discover himself. He created his castles for the same reasons that a poet creates a poem: to explore and express his innermost thoughts and feelings. Actually, Ludwig never really lived in his artistic and grandiose creations, and he personally prefered simple, even Spartan, living quarters that always surprised the people who visited him there.
Also in their attitude towards women, Poe and Ludwig were very similar. There is no doubt that both Poe and Ludwig preferred the company of women above that of men. Ludwig, who had homo-erotic feelings, was attracted to women, but, like Poe, more as subjects of distant worship, artistic inspiration and admiration, than as partners for life and sexual relations. Ludwig’s fascination with women and female creatures is visible in all his castles, but is best expressed in the famous ‘Venus Grotto’ at the Linderhof palace.
Besides being a brilliant architect and builder himself, Ludwig was an admirer and benefactor of the performing arts. He was a friend and supporter of the composer Richard Wagner, whose operas he enjoyed and admired. These operas were sometimes performed for Ludwig alone, because he shunned the presence of crowds, whose stares he could not endure.
Of course, the most remarkable similarities between Poe and Ludwig can be found in their artistic expressions: Poe’s poems and stories, and Ludwig’s castles and palaces. These similarities show that both were fascinated by the thin line between life and death, the transition from the here to the hereafter. And that both men walked this thin line with a virtuosity and wild fantasy that constantly mixed rationality and irrationality, brilliance and madness, genius and insanity, dream and reality, romanticism and enlightenment, art and chaos, fairy-tale and nightmare, creation and destruction.
Alfons Schweiggert speculates what would have happened if King Ludwig and Poe had really met; if Ludwig had become a supporter and benefactor of Poe, as he was for Richard Wagner. This is a similar ‘what if’ question as: ‘What would have happened if John Allan had recognized Poe as his son, and Poe had inhertited his fortune?’ Schweiggert suggests that this would have allowed Poe to write even more and better than he already did. However, to me this is doubtful. Poe was a man who grew and created against opposition, so if he could have lived a life of ease and luxury, as a member of the American upper class, he would have written very different stories and poems, but very probably he might not have written at all!
This book demonstrates and explores for the first time the strong spiritual link between two of the most creative and remarkable personalities of the 19th century; one writing with ink on paper, the other building in stone and precious materials. A further comparative study of Poe’s work and Ludwig’s castles will undoubtedly reveal many more similarities and ways in which Poe inspired king Ludwig when he planned and designed the exteriors and interiors of his materialized hopes, dreams and fears.
An English translation of this book will certainly be welcome to the many worldwide fans and admirers of Edgar Allan Poe and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
This essay was first published in the Edgar Allan Poe Review (Spring 2014, pages 114-117)