Text: Edward W. Pitcher, “Poe’s ‘The Assignation’: A Reconsideration,” Poe Studies, June 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:1-4


[page 1:]

Poe’s “The Assignation”:
A Reconsideration

University of Alberta

Since the publication in 1963 of Richard Benton’s study of “The Assignation,‘‘(1) several readers of the story have been persuaded to take his interpretation as a starting point for further commentary. G. R. Thompson, for example, has strongly endorsed Benton’s view of the tale as “hoax” or ironically veiled spoof, while providing additional evidence and argument based on his familiarity with other of Poe’s comic and satiric tales.(2) Both believe that the analogues in Byron’s life, poems, and letters (particularly those in Thomas Moore’s edition of the Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, 1830) are of central importance.(3) Both have suggested that the allusions to laughter, the statue-like stiffness of the characters, the absurdities and incongruities in the chamiore d‘art of the protagonist, and the conspicuous pun on Thomas More (for “Moore”) were Poe’s methods of signalling his comic intent. Indeed, because Poe wrote the story at the time he devised his Folio Club satires and apparently grouped it with the comic and mock-serious tales of 1833-34, one cannot easily dismiss the Benton / Thompson thesis, although intelligent alternative readings of the tale seem unwilling or unable to incorporate the “hoax” thesis when it precludes any case for the serious “romanticism” of the tale.(4)

If the story be essentially a comic piece, we are obligated to see the apparently serious utterances and actions of the protagonist as mock-seriousness on Poe’s part, and we must read the apparently tragic events (the near-drowning of the infant and the suicide of the lovers) as melodrama or spoofed Gothic. Assuming we do arrive finally at such a reading, we should recognize nonetheless that the story is a fabric of interwoven “appearances” and “realities,” of professed seriousness and apparent intimations of deep meaning spun together with threads of the comic, the ludicrous, and the absurd. Poe’s method sets up a tension (with attendant confusion) between opposed perspectives, each of which emerges and strengthens as the narrative moves forward.(5) It is a method that may urge the [column 2:] reader to adopt what he infers to be the authorially preferred perspective, but I believe that Poe meant to sustain the tension and consequent ambiguity and thereby leave the reader poised between optional readings of the tale “bewildered” along with the narrator but able to entertain, at once, the comic and the serious perspectives. In the juncrion of these elements lies the rhetorical “assignation” of the story and its essential unity.

In his essays, tales, and poetry, Poe generally associated “appearances” with the vulgar and worldly and with the finite, static, or limited imagination; “realities” were otherworldly, visionary, and associated with cosmic or divine “truths,” with the infinire and eternal.‘; Appearances were the sensual and physical phenomena embracing the rational, commonsensical, mortal man; realities were spiritual and psychic phenomena that informed the man of imagination, the dreamer and visionary, of his place in a divine plan. Poe often played these related opposites against each other, either as they were dramatized in opposed characters (husband versus wife in “Morella” or “Ligeia”) or by working out a psychic drama, internalized in one character torn between the two polarities of his being (Usher) or learning ro accept both (the male protagonist in “Eleonora”). In virtually every dramatization of this theme, Poe stressed his belief (or poeticized working hypothesis) that the fixed physical world of sense, reason, and appearance was precariously poised upon a sea of spiritual realities, alive, prorean, maturing. Finally the “city” collapses into the “sea“; the spiritual Madeline rises from the depths of the house to overwhelm Roderick; the unconscious mind or soul takes over the physical body, conquers the world-rooted consciousness (“Ligeia”); the material universe collapses into divine spirit (Eureka). The spirirual reality viewed by the artier is a reality of process, of becoming, compared to which the phenomena of the world of appearances viewed by sense-based understanding are static, fixed, statue-like imitations of the living truth.

In “The Assignation,” Poe’s use of his narrator is in keeping with his general insistence on opposed perspectives in the story, perspectives which provide the alternate readings of the meaning of the tale. These views of the story’s hero and content reflect, of course, two views of the world or life itself (the mundane and the visionary), and Poe cleverly intimates that as much as the man of the world may mock the visionary’s “bewildered” sense of reality, so too the visionary feels that one “m~st laugh” (Works, II, 158) about much in this world. The narrator is made to [page 2:] confess that “there are surely other worlds than this — other thoughts than the thoughts of the multitude,” but he cannot approve a suicidal pursuit of such “other worlds” and implies that they exist only in the reveries and “magnificent meditations” (Works, II, 151) of the man of imagination.

His view of the visionary in general and of the protagonist in particular is that one sho~ldst l~e content “squandering” away life in purely speculative musings upon “the secrets” of the “silent waters” of the “city of dim visions” (Works, II, 151). The narrator does not see what the artist/visionary sees; he is bound to a world of surface appearances, of mirrored images viewed, for the most part, by artificial light. The reader, dependent upon the narrator as his guide and viewpoint, must overcome the narrator’s limitations of sight (and insight) when establishing a perspective on the protagonist’s situation.

Poe moves his narrator (and his reader) through the events of a “night of unusual gloom” (Works, II, 151) to the incidents of dawn and the suicides “one hour after sunrise.” The night is punctured by a shriek which startles the narrator’s gondolier so that his single oar is lost “in the pitchy darkness.” Adrift and helplessly drawn by the currents, the narrator arrives at the scene of tragedy, where “a thousand flambeaux . . . turned all at once that deep gloom irto a livid and preternatural day.” In this artificial light he watches as rescuers search “upon the surface” of the canal for the child who has sunk into “the abyss” to apparent death (Works, II, 152) .

What one does view on the surface, floating helplessly, spectrally, is the narrator in his gondola, seeing all around him but lacking the will or “power to move from the upright position.” To the “eyes of the agitated group” (Works, II, 153), he is a statue-like image of death reflecting the death of the child which lies deep within or below the mirror-surface of the “quiet waters.” To his eyes, however, Aphrodite is the reflector of the tragic scene, as her figure “gleamed in the black mirror of marble beneath her” (Works, II, 152), and her eye (to his mind) distractedly reflected sorrow “like a shattered mirror” in “far off places” (Works, II, 153). The reader follows these shifts in perspective, cautiously if wise, from the narrator to the crowd and back again, from the narrator to Aphrodite and thence to the protagonist.

As the protagonist emerges from the shadow of “the Old Republican prison” (Works, II, 154), the tale breaks out of the “drifting” inertia, immobility, and vainly expended energy of the mirrored scene. Action follows abruptly and effectively as the protagonist dives into the waters (below the surface), retrieves the still-living child, and restores it to Aphrodite on the other side of the canal. He doubly triumphs over the “abyss” by plunging within it in a successful restoration of life, and by crossing over from one side to the other, from the gloom of the old prison into the light of the ducal palace.

The narrator sees only a rescue effected in heroic style and lends no significance to its manner or its nearly miraculous [column 2:] outcome. He is curious but baffled by Aphrodite’s disregard of the infant, by her blush, and by her cryptic words to the protagonist: “Thou hast conquered” (Works, II, 155). What he thinks he sees in her eyes is distorted by his ignorance, at this point, of a prior relationship between Aphrodite and the “stranger,” but the reader is invited eo question his perspective by Poe’s stress on eyes and seeing: “tears are gathering in her eyes — those eyes which, like Pliny’s acanthus, are ’soft and almost liquid‘. Yes! tears are gathering in those eyes — and see! the entire woman thrills throughout the soul, and the statue has started into life!” (Works, II. 154). The maudlin sentimentality here is the narrator’s, not Poe’s, just as the animated statue image of Aphrodite reflects how the narrator sees her. She is not the mother-figure transfixed by anxiety, then animated through the rescue of her child, despite the narrator’s expectations (“She will now receive her child — she will press it to her heart“ — Works, II, 154); rather she is a lover who is now pledged to a suicidal assignation because the trial in which the protagonist has triumphed (the restoration from the abyss of the child) is proof to her that life survives in “that hollow vale.”

The narrator cannot see the significance of the events, cannot see what passions and thoughts lie beneath external appearances, cannot penetrate the surface of the canal, of the lovers, of art, or of life itself. He can be “minute” in giving details of external appearances but is confounded by appearances that refuse to remain fixed and therefore intelligible. His depiction of the protagonist’s countenance reveals his own limitations:

It had no peculiar — it had no settled predominant expression to be fastened upon the memory . . . . Not that the spirit of each rapid passion failed, at any time, to throw its own distinct image upon the mirror of that face — but that the mirror, mirror-like, retained no vestige of the passion, when the passion had departed. (Works, 11, 156)

The narrator characteristically fixes images of people and things and stores them up like so many photographs in his album-memory, but “reality” or “inner truths” cannot be caught by the mirror or eye. For the narrator, passions vanish from the face of the protagonist as if they had no lasting effect; but the effect is registered not on the protagonist’s facial features but on his soul. Virtually all the narrator’s efforts to construe the “inner truths” by reference to surface appearances are confused or wrong-headed. Similarly the gloom of night and shadow limits what he sees, and the glare of artificial light inhibits his seeing it accurately. He lives in a world perceived as so many mimetically rendered statues, paintings, and mental photographs — a world explored and known more by sense and sense-based understanding than by imagination or insight.

Opposed to him, of course, is the “visionary.” When the narrator enters his chambers at dawn, he is made “blind and dizzy” by a design “to dazzle and astound“ — but we note especially that “the senses were oppressed by mingled and conflicting perfumes” and by “a thousand reflections” from intermingled natural and artificial light (Works, [page 3:] II, 157-158). For the narrator, in the visionary’s world, “the eye wandered from object to object, and rested upon none” (Works, II, 157). He is lost in the protagonist’s “bower of dreams” and little comforted, no doubt, by the claim that “the effect is incongruous to the timid alone” (Works, II, 165), for he must be ranked among the “timid,” those who want all to be “in keeping” in order that they might make sense of it.

Having been invited into the private world of the visionary, the narrator gradually, fitfully comes to comprehend the conspicuous clues indicating the established relationship between Aphrodite and the protagonist. When his understanding comes, though too late for him to prevent the suicide, it flashes suddenly over his “soul.” Poe implies that the narrator has moved a step away from his initial sense-based, limited comprehension, toward an understanding of the protagonist’s character and of the events of that night. The reader has also been dislocated from a dependence and trust in the narrator and, at the very least, experiences an empathy based on curiosity to know more, to go back over the details of the story and consider their meaning from a different perspective.

From that retrospective view, it is apparent that the “stranger” is deliberately present the night of the child’s plunge into the canal. The Marchesa Aphrodite looks for his emergence from the shadows in a manner that demonstrates her prior knowledge of his station. Implicitly it is by design, not accident, that he waits unril the swimmers searching for the child on the surface of the canal have abandoned hope before effecting his “instant” rescue. In retrospect, it also becomes clear why Aphrodite chooses to tell him “Thou hast conquered” over receiving her child: uppermost in her thoughts is her commitment to an assignation in death in accordance with some predetermined set of conditions now satisfied.

By means of the Marchesa’s portrait, the protagonist’s use of English, and especially the poem, Poe provides other hints and pieces of circumstantial evidence that the two have been lovers earlier in England. In the poem, a bereft narrator mourns the departure of his love to “Italian streams.” The fifth stanza, excluded from separately printed versions,(7) implies particulars of the lovers’ past — of the beloved’s passage from “our misty clime” “o‘er the billow,” and “From Love to titled age and crime, / And an unholy pillow.” The poem also suggests that the love affair was physically consummated — “all the flowers were mine“ — thus raising the possibility that the Marchesa’s child is the protagonist’s. As such, the infant stands as the product and symbol of their union, the offspring of a love sanctified by laws which transcend rhose of the marriage sacrament, sanctified by spiritual, not earthly bonds. Consequently the rescue of the child from the abyss (spiritual realities) is a proof — and a trial set up to establish a proof — that the union of love, the oneness of love, cannot be stifled by death. Thus, the stranger has conquered: Aphrodite’s doubts and convinced her that their assignation in death is the union of love beyond this world of appearances. [column 2:]

The narrator’s initial understanding of the tale’s action rhus proving unreliable, the reader may wish to look elsewhere for the authorial perspective and purpose. One may prefer to believe that Poe’s sympathy lay with the “dreamer” (and, to borrow from the preface to Eureka, with “those who put faith in dreams”) and that the symbolic reading of the tale was the one Poe intended. Yet Benton and Thompson have demonstrated that Poe clearly intended to qualify our sympathy for the mystical stranger and his statuesque lover and introduced comic exaggerations and puns to signal some degree of authorial detachment from them. The reader thus dangles from the double hook of Poe’s ambiguous narrative strategy, which intermixes the evidence that the story should be read one particular way. I contend that Poe consciously sustains this tension, embodying in the narrator and the protagonist opposed impulses, the former reflecting man’s essentially reasonable nature, the latter his mystical idealism. Poe does invite us to see in the sought-after symbolic union of the lovers evidence of that spiritual yearning in man which forerells his eventual destiny, which expresses the meaningful direction taken by higher thought. Man’s intuition of his ultimate fate, however, points also to the ineptness, the comic absurdity of man’s best previous efforts to capture (unite with) beauty (Aphrodite). All such efforts and their products are premature and naive, imperfect or, at best, fragmentary glimpses, half-remembered dreams.

In “The Assignation,” the n, both the narrator and the protagonist are denied the unequivocal support of the author, because Poe is attempting to reveal the human dilemma through the complex balancing of what each represents. The over-reaching mystic/artist does believe that he can plunge into the abyss and survive — can defy death, can grasp Beauty. The worldly man of reason in whom the mystical is suppressed must float on the surface — rudderless in the dark. When the two are drawn together, reason intects the mystic with a sense of the absurd; the mystic infects the rationalisr with an intuition of higher, bewildering truths. There is no victory of one side over the other in this assignation.



1. - Richard Benton, ‘‘Is Poe’s ‘The Assignation’ a Hoax?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 28 (19G3), 193-197.

2. - G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 125-130. See also his article “Poe’s Flawed Gothic” in New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, ed. Richard Benton (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1970), pp. 38-58. In this latter colleaion, Alice Chandler also comments on “The Assignation‘’ [page 4:] in ” ‘The Visionary Race‘: Poe’s Attitude toward His Dreamers” (pp. 73-81, esp. 75-76); she accepts the tale as “almost certainly, as Richard P. Benton has pointed out, a travesty of Byronism,” but she argues that it is also “an analysis of the alliance between dream and death,” reflecting Poe’s “increasing Elsa Nettels distrust of the visionary or artistic temperament” and his fearful consciousness of the fact that the “quest for ideality” may lead to annihilation of the self. Thompson also makes the case that Poe was irresistibly, fearfully inclined to explore “the abyss” or “void” (see the final chapter of Poe’s Fiction), but Thompson argues that Poe generally controlled this inclination to create works rich in irony and inspired by a “positive” skepticism.

3. - Poe’s knowledge and use of Byron’s works had been known to the earliest of his critics and biographers; pertinent detailed studies include Roy Basler’s “Byronism in Poe’s ‘To One in Paradise,‘” American Literature, 9 (1937), 232-236, Burton Pollin’s Discoveries in Poe (Notre Dame and London: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1970), chs. 5 and 6, and George H. Soule, Jr., “Byronism in Poe’s ‘Metzengerstein’ and ‘William Wilson,‘” ESQ, 24 (1978), 152-162.

4. - Thomas O. Mabbott describes tne tale as “the most romantic story Poe ever wrote” and states that “notions that Poe would have put so lovely a poem as ‘To One in Paradise’ into a burlesque, or have considered the death of a beautiful woman comic, I cannot accept” (Works, 11, 148, 149n). Mabbott would have welcomed Benjamin Franklin Fisher’s persuasive defense of the “serious” romanticism which inspired the tale, particularly in “To ‘The Assignation’ from ‘The Visionary’ (Part Two) . . . ,” Library Chronicle [Univ. of Pennsylvania], 40 (1976), 221-251. As will become clear, my own position is one that yokes together the “alternative” readings of the story.

5. - I have made a case for Poe’s use of opposed perspectives in “The Arnheim Trilogy: Cosmic Landscapes in the Shadow of Poe’s Eureka,” Canadian Review of American Stadies, 6 (1975), 27 35, and in “Poe’s Eureka as a Prose Poem” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 29, Pt. 11 (Winter 1976), pp. 61-71. For some very useful comments on the different perspectives in several

stories, see James W. Gargano, “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,‘’ in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1970), pp. 308-316.

6. - The most recent book-length exploration of similar ideas is David Ketterer’s The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979). In his Preface, Ketterer writes,

In focusing on the matter of dffeption as theme and technique I hope to clarify what I understand to be the most consistent and dominant aspect of Poe s work. Operating on the belief that in relation to a sensed visionary reality everyday reality constitutes one gross deception, Poe

finds himself in a berter position to artack the false realiq than to reveal the true. He hopes to destroy a deceptive reality by means of various technical and thematic deceptions of his own. (pp. xii-xiii).

Ketterer is particularly concerned to relate, first, Poe’s term “arabesque” with his sense of the ideal, the “spiritual reality” beyond this world, and, second, his term “grotesque” with the mundane world of limited perception. He counters Thompson’s thesis in Poe’s Fiction that the terms are effectively interchangeable, by suggesting that “to see human reality as grotesque is to intuit simultaneously intimations of an arabesque reality” (p. 37). In his sub sequent discussion of “The Assignation” (pp. 183-185), Ketterer offers an analysis of the rescue of the child from the canal as an allegorized proof of “the possibility of resurrection. The marchesa agrees to the suicide pact because her lover has proved to her that death is not final” (p. 184).

7. - See Works, 1, 211-216, and 11, 169, n. 28.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]