Text: Patricia C. Smith, “Poe’s Arabesque,” Poe Studies, December 1974, Vol. VII, No. 2, 7:42-45


[page 42:]

Poe’s Arabesque

University of New Mexico

Among books brought out in 1840 there appeared a slight manual aimed at art students and amateur decorists called A Guide for Drawing the Acanthus. The author, James Page, devotes one chapter to the “Arabesque,” which he defines in an enviably cavalier fashion: “Of course,” he says, “I adopt the term as it is generally understood” (1). Page’s casual vagueness matches that of William Dean Howells’ fifty-five years later, recalling how Tales of the Grotesque and Arahesque was one of the few works of fiction he knew as a child; he muses, “I long afflicted myself as to what those words meant, when I might easily have asked and found out” (2). And, of course, Poe himself comes not much closer to a definition than his famous “The epithets grotesque and arabesque will indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales herein published.”

Perhaps Poe was being purposely elusive in his Preface to the Tales, but in 1840 the terms grotesque and arabesque really were not as slippery as they seem in 1974. We have long been aware of Sir Walter Scott’s coupling of the terms in his suggestive 1827 essay on Hoffmann, but Poe need not have used Scott or any other single source for the terms (3). Arabesque and grotesque both refer to a style (or styles) of decoration which greatly interested people in the first half of the nineteenth century, and in magazines, encyclopedias, and other publications, one finds lively discussions about the difference between the two terms, the uses to which the style might be put by modern decorators, and controversy about its aesthetic and moral values. These discussions in the popular literature of Poe’s day suggest a number of reasons for Poe’s private affinity for the terms. I think it worthwhile here to give a short history of the style and its critics prior to the nineteenth century, and it is probably most useful to begin with the sort of historical account that Poe was probably familiar with. The Encyclopaedia Americana, for example (Philadelphia, 1831), gives a succinct and correct definition of both arabesque and grotesque in its “Grotesque” article, and it begins by acknowledging the contemporary confusion between the terms:

GROTESQUES, in painting, are often confounded with arabesques. All ornaments compounded in a fantastical manner, of men, beasts, flowers, plants, &c., are sometimes called arabesques, and sometimes grotesques; but there is a distinction between them. Arabesques are flower-pieces, consisting of all kinds of leaves and flowers, real or imaginary. They are so called from the Arabians, who first used them, because they were not permitted to copy beasts and men. As they were also used by the Moors, they are sometimes called Moresques. The Romans ornamented their saloons with paintings, in which flowers, genii, men and beasts, buildings, &c., are mingled together according to the fancy of the artist. These ornaments are properly called grotesques, because they were found in the ruined buildings of the ancient Romans, and in subterranean chambers, which the Italians call grottoes . . . [column 2:]

The Roman style of which the Americana speaks originates around 100 B.C., although as nineteenth-century critics were fond of pointing out, similar styles occur in the decorative art of many earlier cultures. Despite its popularity, it was a controversial style from the beginning. Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder both thought it a decadent fad, a mad, irresponsible, tasteless vision of “things which never are, nor can be, nor have been,” and Horace pokes fun at the style in the opening lines of his Ars Poetica for its excesses and improbable conjunctions, its flaunting of “What is natural” (4).

After the fall of Rome, most frescoes and stucco-work were gradually lost to view, and the style largely forgotten until the Renaissance, when ancient imperial dwellings ornamented with frescoes were accidentally excavated by workmen on the Palatine and Esquiline Hills; Raphael, serving both as Prefect of Antiquities and Chief Architect of the Vatican, delighted in the grace and freedom of the old designs, and he and his helpers imitated them in the Vatican stucco-work. Cellini also responded to the exuberance, comprehensiveness, and vitality of the designs and sought to imitate them; in the Autobiography, he defends them from the charge of being against nature, for nature herself gives us authority for blended forms in plants like the snapdragon, where the playful mind sees hints of correspondences between one natural realm and another (5).

The style was never totally forgotten after the Renaissance revival, but its next great period of popularity came in the first half of the nineteenth century, stimulated by the discovery of the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Pompeii had actually been partially unearthed in 1748, but it was not until 1817, when a spate of detailed, handsomely engraved books like Sir William Gell’s Pompeiiana began to appear, that the popular imagination became caught up in the long-concluded drama of Pompeii. From 1817 on, the city underwent a second nonarcheological exhumation in print and paint. Wordsworth, Shelley, Scott, Macaulay, and many lesser figures made the site their theme; perhaps the greatest impact was made by Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii, inspired both by Gell’s detailed account of the entombed Pompeiians, and by Karl Bryullov’s dramatic painting, in flashing chiaroscuro, of the hapless fligh’ from the holocaust. “The City of the Dead” tempted artists to moral, sociological, and philosophical speculation, but the city itself contained works of art. Arabesque-grotesque designs, far superior to the Roman ones, formed borders for the large mythological scenes on the walls of Pompeiian houses. People spoke excitedly of them, and their discovery happened to coincide with a great surge of interest in the decorative arts. Pompeiian rooms and summerhouses became the vogue; commercial and amateur designers sought to adapt the Pompeiian designs to their own needs (6).

In popular writings on the arts, the first detailed references to the style start appearing after 1817 and the publication of Gell’s Pompeiiana. In this popular commentary, the words are frequently coupled, sometimes by writers who treat them as synonyms or near-synonyms, sometimes by those eager to straighten out the etymology: [page 43:]

Arabesque ornament in sculpture, if not kept very low in relief, is apt to become grotesque. . . . (Penny Cyclopedia, 1833)

Arabesque decoration is sometimes called grotesque . . . (Page, A Guide for Drawing the Acanthus) .

Examples could be multiplied, and Scott is clearly not the only writer to make bedfellows of the terms.

The popular writings also suggest modern uses for the style, generally recommending arabesque or grotesque decor for use in rather limited, circumscribed areas — retiring rooms, small apartments, tapestries, carpets. One thinks of the rooms of the hero of “The Assignation,” and of the man in “The Philosophy of Furniture,” of Angelo in Al Aaraaf, and of Rowena’s death chamber, all equipped with arabesque fittings. The “Grotesque” article in Rees’ Cyclopedia of 1819 says a major use of the style is in masquerade habits, “the more valued the more grotesque they are,” bringing to mind the revellers of “The Masque of The Red Death,” whom Poe describes as both grotesque and arabesque.

Many nineteenth-century critics echo the classical disapproval and are disturbed or offended by a style depicting disparate objects, some of them hybrids in themselves and blending, entwining them into an uneasy unity. The writer of the “Arabesque” article in Rees’ Cyclopedia says that “The best architects” should “treat with contempt the bad taste of those artists who are profuse of these chimerical and imaginary ornaments . . . instead of preferring the real and beautiful productions of nature”; and the Encyclopaedia Americana entry on “Grotesque” (1839) says that what grotesque-makers fashion is “monstrous and unnatural,” “the offspring of an unrestrained imagination.’ Like Sir Walter Scott, many felt that the arabesque or grotesque maker is “vividly accessible to the influence of imagination” and “little under the dominion of sober reason,” and that his apparent lack of selectivity and rejection of what is natural are, at best, in bad taste, at worst, a sign of wild-eyed lunacy. An odd defense of the style is made by Disraeli in his anonymous review of his own Vivian Grey in the New Monthly Magazine in 1827: he suggests that the artist is justified in using the style only when he needs to depict something which goes against nature, against the orderly God-ordained world, something which is specifically demonic — “fantastic forms, whose purpose is the temptation of a saint, or the torture of a sinner.” Pleasant designs deviating from natural appearances, like “a boy’s head appearing out of a lily” in some garden of cherubic delights, serve no worthwhile purposes; the pleasurable may evidently be depicted in more natural ways. But the grotesque is justified when it makes us “sensible of the terrors of a guilty mind.” In other words, it is indeed a mad and mangled vision of nature, a blasphemous terror of a style that quite literally looks like hell; but it is the style best suited to depict, for example, what St. Anthony confronted — and providentially rejected — in his temptation.

But other critics make a strong argument for the sanity and naturalness of the arabesque-grotesque designs. Some argue that the style is natural in the sense that it seems to be human nature to want to make this kind of art; the tendency to mingle forms is a natural human instinct. This point is made by many, but perhaps most lovingly and at greatest length by an anonymous reviewer [column 2:] in the Athenaeum in 1844, who argues that “the arabo-grotesque,” as he calls it, is ubiquitous in origin, found alike in Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, and PreColumbian cultures; “we have little doubt,” he concludes, “that all Oriental art was, to a greater or lesser degree, imbued by the tendency to the arabesque” (8).

Others argue that the arabesque or grotesque is truly imitative of nature — the nature a religious man, or perhaps just a sensitive and imaginative man, perceives — a nature which is inextricably mingled, mysteriously unified, where connections and correspondences exist in the midst of apparent heterogeneity, incongruity. The Rees’ Cyclopedia article on grotesque says the style probably originates in Egyptian hieroglyphic, when artists joined the heads and limbs of men or gods to “blocks of stone, to vases, to foliage &c., thereby characterizing the inclinations and powers of the deity, or persons whose history they record, or whose peculiar transactions they are intended to preserve. . . .” The Greeks and the Romans, he continues, refined the style, still using it to attempt to suggest a current of supernatural relationship between the blended figures and objects, and the style “received much of its force and interest, in heathen days, from the mythological enigmas couched under these compound forms. . . .”

We continue to admire old designs, and to make new ones, even though we have lost the mythological, the divine keys: “. . . although the understanding is insulted by them, yet such is the power of the beauty of the form, that we are gratified by it, in spite of our reason.” The god may be dead, or disbelieved in, yet something of his power seems residual in the forms through which he was once made manifest.

Another case for the naturalness of mingled forms is made by one C. H., reviewer of Thomas Hood for the Westminster Review of April 1838, who trumpets:

Who is there so dull, that, in some moment or other, he has not, with half-shut eyes, overpassed in imagination the boundaries of sense and spirit? . . . . not watched the growth and decay of strange faces in the bickering fire at eventide? . . . Unnatural! In what passage of life is Dignity to be found without its flaw of littleness, or Truth without its disfiguring speck of falsity? — or the merriest laughter unchecked by its undertone of sadness? (9)

The human imagination naturally blends physical forms, seeing faces in flames, like the hero of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” hearing voices in the creaking of a door; but there is also a natural moral and emotional grotesque, since such things as Truth or Sorrow almost never exist in their pure states. One thinks of Poe’s own comparison between mingled emotions and grotesque./ arabesque carving in “The Assignation,” where the hero has

. . . a habit of intense and continual thought, pervading even his most trivial actions — intruding upon his moments of dalliance — and interweaving itself with his very flashes of merriment — like adders which writhe from out the eyes of the grinning masks in the cornices around the temples of Persepolis.

Many things in nineteenth-century commentary on the arabesque and grotesque, the style of blended forms, recall Poe, who believed that what the poet does is fashion “multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of time.” Near the beginning of Eureka, Poe [page 44:] compares the plight of modern man trying to comprehend that the universe is really one vast animate and sentient whole to that of a man standing on Me. Aetna — if he stands still, he is bewildered by the sheer multiplicity of visible objects and cannot take it all in. But if he should suddenly spin rapidly about on his heel, all beneath him would become one sublime blur, and he would be able to “comprehend the panorama in the sublimity of its oneness.” Man needs some such “mental gyration on the heel” to reduce the confusion of the diffused universe; he must rely on some artificial means to resolve the apparently unconnected many back into the actual organic one. The artist, who has glimpsed the truth of unity, the “glories beyond the grave,” makes such an artifice. In “The Poetic Principle” and elsewhere, Poe insists that artistic creation is the combination of varied elements; the artist fuses preexistent shapes, ideas, qualities, into what. ever new harmonious arrangements of them he can devise, bringing heterogeneous materials and sensations together into a unified whole to demonstrate their essential inclination toward combination; he reveals, at least partially, the hidden unity of all things by combining elements hitherto not found combined in nature. The “Beauty above” or “beyond the grave” he is trying to capture is the beauty of unity, and every successful combination that he manages to effect goes a little way towards suggesting the primal unity.

If combination is the nature and function of art, then Poe must have thought that the arabesque-grotesque designs being talked of in his own day provided an admirable and obvious demonstration of his aesthetic theory, and it is little wonder that he gave these names to his own tales. According to the most popular definitions, arabesque and grotesque both represent forms melting into one another; the arabesque provides the perfect example in visual art of disparate beings, some of them hybrids in themselves, blended into a whole and harmonious design. In these designs, all classes of objects are made to seem equally animate; a stone column, a flower, a snake, can equally well terminate in the head of a man. The foliage which twines itself sinuously about the hybrid forms corresponds roughly to the spin of Poe’s sightseer on Aetna, creating a further illusion of blending by taking all elements of the design into a lively, circuitous, kinetic embrace.

Of course, we cannot determine what specific things Poe may have read concerning grotesques and arabesques, but as a magazinist, reviewer, and habitual skimmer of encyclopaedias, he must have run into writings on the subject, and many contemporary ideas about the style would have appealed to him — for example, the suggestion by some writers on the style that there may be two kinds of reality, the heterogeneous separate nature the average eye sees, and the mysteriously unified, inextricably mingled nature the arabesque-maker discerns. Again, the notion that all cultures betray a tendency toward combined forms in their art, that the arabesque is bound to crop up, accords with Poe’s own conception of the universal human inclination to struggle in the direction of the lost memories of unity.

There is one more aspect of the grotesque and arabesque art forms which must surely have attracted Poe, [column 2:] and that is their point of origin, in a very special sense. When Poe mentions the arabesque or grotesque in his tales as a style of art, he generally seems to have in mind the ancient designs, the curious mosaics, reliefs, and frescoes of Pompeii or Persepolis. Many critics called it a decadent form, and, to be sure, the ancient arabesque is a style which seems to have flourished in cities doomed to cataclysmic destruction. Prophets, as Poe knew, are seldom lacking in a doomed city, and in Poe’s tales the appearance of the arabesque seems not so much the decadent prelude to holocaust, as the inspired prophecy of it. It is a form of art particularly suited to be practiced in the “lonesome latter years” of a civilization, for it presciently embodies the concept of destruction in its most graceful aspect. The very form of the designs, which delicately and convincingly interweave all categories of life, foretells another, richer state of being in which the apparent separation of God, Man, and Nature will be seen for what it is — a temporary illusion to which fallen intellects are susceptible. The annihilation of an individual city or of a single man may be an event pleasurable as well as fearful to contemplate, inasmuch as it is the type, the image of the millennium in which all creation will be gradually annihilated, all individual identities shattered by being reunited into the one.

In this special sense, all ruins, whether or not they contain the remains of prophetic arabesque or grotesque frescoes, are worthy of our contemplation, and that contemplation should ultimately be solemnly joyous rather than gloomy — an intimation of eternity rather than of mortality. In his fine blank-verse poem “The Coliseum,” Poe indulges at first in fairly conventional reveries upon the ghosts of the past and the ruin wrought by the “corrosive hours.” But as Richard Wilbur has noted, the tone changes, and the poem finally becomes a strange sort of affirmation in the final stanza, when the Echoes that live among the ruins take it upon themselves to answer the Poet’s melancholy question as to whether the stones are all that remain of “the famed and the colossal”:

“Not all” — the Echoes answer me — “not all!”

Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever

From us, and from all ruin, unto the wise,

As melody from Memnon to the Sun.

We rule the hearts of mightiest men — we rule

With a despotic sway all giant minds.

The “mysteries,” the “magic,” the “wonders” which imbue the stones are not only of the past, but of the future. The “prophetic” stones speak of the destruction to come as much as of the destruction which has already occurred; they hold sway over the giant minds who, thinking about the stones, yearn forward to the millennium. The poem begins as a kind of tribute to the destructive powers of time, but, in the end, time is irrelevant; prophecy and memory are one.

Perhaps Poe thought of the “crumbling friezes” of the Coliseum as arabesques, but (alas) there is no specific indication of this in the poem, which must be taken as a statement of the prophetic power of ruin in general. But where the arabesque does occur in his writings, it is likely to render that prophecy all the plainer. Elsewhere in Poe, buildings or bowers or men which are on the verge of annihilation often bear the telltale mark of the [page 45:] foresighted artist — the arabesque-grotesque device which illuminates the true significance of the coming death and which, by its very presence, almost seems to seal the certainty of that fate. In Al Aaraaf, Angelo falls into his death sleep on “that eve” when

The sun-ray dropped in Lemnos, with a spell

On th’ arabesque carving of a gilded hall

Wherein I sate . . .

and, in “The City in the Sea,” the “wreathed friezes” which ornament the drowned buildings are clearly arabesques which “intertwine/ The viol, the violet, and the vine.” The writhing censers which illuminate the apartment of the dying hero of “The Assignation” are wrought into arabesque patterns — indeed, his whole chamber is an arabesque — and there are arabesque designs on the tapestries of the death-chamber in “Ligeia.” Roderick Usher himself, whose spirit is honed to a nearly unbearable sensitivity to the truth about Unity (specifically, the unity of the House, his sister, and himself), has an arabesque countenance, and the sinuous “Dreams” or masqueraders who dance wildly in Prince Prospero’s palace prior to the arrival of the Red Death are human arabesques, with “unsuited limbs and appointments.” The canoe which bears the traveller of “The Domain of Arnheim” on the final stage of his journey toward the west — hence, toward the transfigured plane of existence in which Ellison dwells — is “stained with arabesque devices in vivid scarlet, both within and without.” In Poe’s tales, the word “grotesque” often appears in its extended sense of “exaggerated” or “out of place,” but the word “arabesque” and descriptions of art forms which, though unnamed, are clearly arabesques are never used casually. Inevitably, the word is inserted in a passage to evoke the sense of impending death and to suggest that the nature of that death is some sort of dissolution into Unity.

Even where both word and art form are absent, Poe manages to suggest the effect of the arabesque in other ways. The arabesque as Poe sees it is an attempt to suggest something kinetic — the motion toward unity — in a static medium; symbolically, it is always moving in the direction of the form-obliterating spiral. The man whirling about on Aetna resolves all he sees into a radical blur by means of his spin; the universe itself, in Eureka, collapses ultimately into a state of nihility. As in the Maelstrom, where all things “meet together at the bottom,” the final vision toward which the arabesque points is one in which unity is perceived, and it is impossible to distinguish one thing from another. The closing image in many Poe tales which do not specifically mention the arabesque is that of the simple spiral — whether it be a whirlpool of October ale, as in the darkly comic “King Pest,” the whirlwind which brings the House of Usher down in ruins, or the revolutions of the Fay’s boat in “The Island of the Fay.”

In “The Philosophy of Furniture,” which appeared in Burton’s in May 1840, Poe describes what he considers the ideal room, a chamber fit for a poet to inhabit. He is particular about all the decor, but most especially about the carpet, which he considers “the soul of a room.” He deplores the current fashions in carpets, including the Turkish, “bedizzened out like a Riccaree Indian — all [column 2:] red chalk, yellow ochre, and cock’s feathers.” The “soul” of his room shall instead be adorned with arabesques. The giant mind, the mind of the poet fit to inhabit Poe’s indoor Eden, is despotically ruled by visions of dissolution, and he quite appropriately wishes to surround himself in his at-home hours with the species of ornament most likely to induce the particularly stylized vision or dream which he seeks.



A version of this paper was read before the Poe Studies Association at the MLA national meeting, Chicago, December 1973.

(1) James Page, A Guide for Drawing the Acanthus ( 1840), p. 160.

(2) William Dean Howells, My Literary Passions (New York: Harper, 1895), pp. 7-8.

(3) Most Poe scholars have been content to identify Scott’s essay on Hoffmann in the July 1827 number of the Foreign Quarterly Review as the probable source of the terms, and to speculate that A arabesque” refers to serious tales, grotesque to slight and satirical ones. In recent years, L Moffitt Cecil has suggested that “arabesque” is a synonym for eastern, and that by using it Poe means to imply the influence of Oriental tales on his writing. See “Poe’s Arabesque,” Comparative Literature, 18 (1966), 55-70. Both Robert Jacobs and Daniel Hoffman connect the words more closely with decorative art; both take “grotesque” to refer to the monstrous details in Gothic designs and to corresponding elements in Poe’s tales. Jacobs thinks “arabesque” implies the total and beautiful pattern of a design or tale which may incorporate monstrous elements; Hoffman thinks the word refers to nonrepresentational Muslim designs, and hence is associated with Poe’s desire to transcend the grossness of physical existence. See Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 165-166, n. 13, and Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 207-208. All of these explanations are interesting, but none, I think, takes enough account of what Poe’s contemporaries were saying about the terms. The longest and most careful discussion of their history and of the way Poe uses them is in G. R. Thompson’s Poe’s Fiction (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), especially Ch. 4 and 5. Thompson links the word with German Romantic critical theories of Gothic irony; “grotesque” and “arabesque,” he says, are near-synonyms, and Poe’s use of them suggests “a single psychological effect or response having to do with ambivalence, tension between opposites, and a sense of the transcendent ironic vision.” See Thompson, pp. 117-118. Thompson’s discussion is useful and thorough, but his explanation of Poe’s use of the terms seems to me overelaborate and involves accepting Poe as a consistently multilevelled ironist. I am attempting here a simpler explanation of the terms, drawing on the more popular sources available to Poe, and connecting the actual form of the designs with parts of Poe’s philosophy and technique which I think have little to do with irony.

(4) See Vitruvius, De Architectvra, trans. Frank Granger (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1931), 11, 105; Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1952), IX, 299, 349; Horace, Ars Poetica in The Satires and Epistles of Horace, trans. Smith Palmer Bovie (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 271.

(5) Benvenuto Cellini, Autobiography, trans. John Addington Symonds (Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1927), pp. 56-57.

(6) See Curtis Dahl, “Recreators of Pompeii,” Archeology, 9 (1956), 183.

(7) Disraeli, anonymous review of Vivian Grey, New Monthly Magazine, 19 (1827), 302.

(8) “Fine Arts,” The Athenaeum, No. 893 (December 7, 1844), 1121-1122.

(9) “C. H.,” review of several works of Thomas Hood, Westminster Review, April 1838, pp. 119-145.


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