Text: Liliane Weissberg, “In Search of Truth and Beauty: Allegory in ‘Berenice’ and ‘The Domain of Arnheim’,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 66-75 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 66, unnumbered:]



As studies like those by William Charvat or Robert Jacobs show, early nineteenth-century American criticism was very much influenced by eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense philosophy.(1) Some of Edgar Allan Poe’s dicta on language, his praise of Macaulay’s “natural” and simple style, for example, may suggest that he fits very well into this tradition, where according to the criterion of successful communication, any ambiguity had to be rejected in favor of clear statements (H10: 156-160). Indeed, Poe quite often speaks against the use of metaphor, and allegory is the literary form against which he argues most consistently. Allegory, moreover, is linked with didactic intentions, and Poe’s opposition to it can be seen as part of his general campaign against didacticism in poetry. His opposition to allegory reveals, however, the problematic demands of Enlightenment criticism as well as the tension between Poe’s theory and practice. Criticism turning toward didacticism and moral judgment had to accept allegory as a genre while rejecting tropes. Poe’s description of allegory as a specific narrative form in turn goes beyond that of a genre, excluding any doublings of meanings and intentions — which practice may seem as uncanny as the doublings of characters in Poe’s tales themselves. Obviously, there is a need for Poe to reject allegory despite his use of it. A description of Poe’s specific understanding and practice may help not only to clarify the contradictions within his work, but also provide some insights into the nature of allegory itself.

Poe alludes to allegory both in his early criticism, for example in his review of Fouque’s Undine, and in later discussions of tales or poems.(2) According to Poe, a tale possesses an upper- and an undercurrent of meaning that exist in subtle balance. The undercurrent may be supportive but not independent of the uppercurrent, so as not to destroy the tale’s unity and effect. This is for Poe, however, exactly what allegory does: it attempts to reverse the currents of meaning and mixes realms that should be separated, by making visible what should only be suggested. Allegory’s fault, therefore, lies not in what it includes, but in the way it presents another meaning; in its obvious placement of what should be unplaceable.

In his discussion of poetry, Poe modified his concept. In the “Philosophy of Composition,” he defines metaphor as a concentrated allegory. This definition reverses Quintilian’s definition of allegory as trope, which appeared in most of the rhetorical textbooks of Poe’s time, [page 67:] and in Rees’s Cyclopaedia of 1819, where allegory is characterized as a continued metaphor, a sequence in time.(3) In Poe’s discussion of “The Raven,” the poem bears a metaphor that is permissible. This metaphor, or other meaning for the bird itself, appears in the last stanza of the poem and changes the meaning of the whole. It provokes, in this specific moment, the desired effect, and produces its unity. The poem, therefore, becomes as poem metaphor,(4) disclosing two ways of reading it that are marked by two different concepts of time. The reading process itself, as a ‘realistic’ or natural venture, is opposed to the momentary disclosure of meaning. Having read a poem, the reader looks back and understands in a new way what had previously seemed straightforward. This moment of recognition defies time. The double process itself parallels Poe’s concept of perspectives discussed for example in Eureka, and his design of the tale with its logical sequence and sudden dénouement.(5) Metaphor, understood as this peculiar allegorical moment, therefore does not inhibit, but rather presupposes previous separation. Allegory and metaphor, on the one hand treated critically or rejected by Poe, in fact turn out to be central to his poetic theory.

Poe describes and defines different genres and places them within a hierarchical order. His rejection of allegory, however, appears in his criticism of fiction as well as that of poetry. We may remember at this point, that Poe had described Fouqué’s Undine as a poem rather than a tale. In that discussion, Poe rejects figurative language in general but does uphold the importance of images. It is after all their mastery of the image which defines Fouque or Shelley as poets. According to Poe, prose is related to truth and poetry to beauty. Yet he redefines truth and beauty during his career as a critic, stressing different aspects of the terms, and shifting their relative importance within his aesthetic theory.(6) In his later writings, they develop from opposites to more closely related terms. Relating allegory to truth may become a problem. If allegory — “speaking otherwise” — involves truth, truth must always be something else.

Yet just this task of speaking otherwise, searching for knowledge, truth, seems to occupy many of Poe’s narrators. His early tale “Berenice” may serve as an example. It can be read, moreover, as a reflection upon allegory and metaphor. From the beginning, the narrator Egaeus seems to be concerned with structuring the world into levels of experience. He describes his life as an “inversion”: “The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, not the material of my every-day existence, but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself” (M2: 210). This is made possible by what Egaeus [page 68:] calls “stagnation.” Two concepts of time are introduced: time as a sequence, and a kind of stillness which is related to the descriptions of waste and decay. Egaeus observes that “years rolled away,” but that he remained, at “the noon of manhood,” still unchanged in his father’s mansion, in a stable condition resembling waste itself, a boyhood “loitered away” (M2: 210). In the tale, the two concepts of time parallel a contrast of light and its absence, another pattern of opposition. Egaeus belongs to a race of visionaries, but visions and memories merge in the prison of his “gray, hereditary halls” to “shadows” and “aerial forms,” dependent on his “sunlight of reason.” Even his relationship with Berenice is described in metaphors of contrasting light and shadow. He is “buried in gloom,” but Berenice is so much in light that she does not reflect upon “shadows in her path” (M2: 209-210).

In Egaeus’ world of excluded reality, however, memories and musings and trances appear as borderlines themselves. The shadow on the floor or the typography of a book present images of these borderlines, hieroglyphs, promising some other meaning. Locked in his ancestral library, Egaeus seems to occupy himself with the reading of foreign books, the repetitious pronunciations of names. The written and the spoken word, apparently, are similar in their physical existence, but this physical existence also keeps the secret of another meaning. Texts and recollections have to be deciphered. Egaeus remains a latecomer in regard to the history of language.

In his discourse on mental powers, he relates his “intensity of interest” to the “attentive” in contrast to the “speculative faculty” of the mind. “A morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed attentive” constitutes what he calls his “monomania,” an ambiguous term, hinting not only at an obsession with one thing, one concept of occupation, but also at ‘oneness,’ a search for identities. For Egaeus, only a metaphysical concept seems adequately to describe his peculiar mental state, and he seems unable to change that state except through a momentary, “startingly abrupt” recovery (M2: 211). Illness and disorder are his terms for his attempts and the consequences to reach beyond the frivolous surface of sound and sight. Berenice and Egaeus, described as opposites before, as figures of light and shadow, appear to be identical in their “disorder,” united in their complaint of trances and epilepsy, uncanny doubles, dependent on each other. For Egaeus, Berenice achieves importance neither as beauty nor as fairylike nymph but as a physical object desired in its proceeding of decay. For Berenice, illness brings physical disorder as a “most appalling distortion of her personal identity” (M2: 213).

Time, then, is reintroduced as loss. Comparable to the loss of meaning in the repeated presence of the word, the wasted Berenice seems [page 69:] to lose more of her “identity” with every reappearance. The problem of who she is, however, seems related to the loss rather than to the presence of her physical appearance. Poe’s phrenological description depicts her as “lifeless,” “lustreless,” “seemingly pupilless” (M2: 215). Berenice promises only absences, and Egaeus’ quest is without material goal: it has to be for a truth without presence. Berenice’s body does not only offer absences, though; it also offers a fetish. The symmetry and lifeless luster of her teeth — indicators of health and beauty — become noticeable only in their difference from the decaying body and its recollection, in their unchangeability. The description of Egaeus’ fascination with Berenice’s teeth is, moreover, repeated in their second encounter. Poe placed this second, intimate scene outside the library doors in later versions of the story.(7) There, after being informed by a “servant maiden” that Berenice has died, Egaeus enters Berenice’s bed chamber, turning the prospective wedding night into a meeting with death. The teeth no longer stand out in contrast to Berenice’s body, but they are still remarkable because of the absence of other, more general features. Berenice is enshrouded; her teeth are visible only through a broken band around her jaw.

Egaeus’ fixation on the material presence of Berenice’s teeth seems to make him unable to deliver the desired knowledge of her identity; like ruins they remain unchanged while suggesting a former, different being. Although attentive to material presence, Egaeus is liable to lose it in trance of obsession; no answers appear without speculative understanding. Like his experience with books, attentiveness seems to prevent answers and to provoke further disorder. The teeth promise something but deliver blanks. Speaking otherwise offers silence.

Poe excised Egaeus’ visit to Berenice’s bed chamber in later revisions of his story, because he regarded it as possibly too horrible.(8) Asterisks also close a second scene which takes place outside his library doors, and the starred empty space between two paragraphs seems to hide a deed of which Egaeus himself has only a vague apprehension. Ironically, Poe made Egaeus excise this second scene as he himself has excised the first. That the empty space may indicate a visit to Berenice’s tomb is suggested by the remarks of a servant, and in the final versions of Poe’s tale this absent scene repeats the earlier absent scene. Poe kept just the first vision of the teeth within his last version of the text. Finally, Egaeus perceives merely broken sentences, comparable to the broken band as well as to the “shattered ivory substances” falling out of a broken box at the end of the story. His own hand bears marks from being “indented with the impress of human nails” (M2: 218). Thus, not only the teeth, but rather the absence they disguise, their trace, seems to rule over the language and the structure of the text to which Egaeus, sitting in his library, compares life itself. It [page 70:] was “a fearful page,” he says, “in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections” (M2: 217-218).

He might have known that the teeth, however, never offer anything but an incomplete answer to the quest for human identity. This ambiguity is suggested as soon as they are mentioned. “[Q]ue tons ses dents étaient des idées,” “that all of her teeth were ideas” is Egaeus’ version of Mlle. de Sa11e’s “[q]ue tous ses pas étaient des sentiments,” “that all of her steps were feelings” (M2: 216). The word identité contracts dents and “idées” into one expression; they are united in “identity,” yet Egaeus hopes to substitute one for the other. The difference between idea and teeth is not simply a contrast of mind and matter. Dents like idées merge into the word identité by disappearing and appearing in an anamorphic manner. Present and not present, independent and embedded in another context, dents itself, as a word, can be read as an image for the fetish that the teeth have become. Matter, it seems, promises the ideas of objects, but prevents their existence. At the end of the story, we learn not only about a woman buried alive, or the desecration of her tomb, but also about the shattered, or rather, scattered, fetish, about the object that can neither speak nor prevent danger.

Broken sentences and scattered objects tell how impossible it is to call anything like an ‘idea’ into presence. Becoming conscious, or, rather, learning about the limits of consciousness, and investigating language becomes one task. Staged as an immoral violation as well as a senseless theft, we are faced with something that cannot be described. Speaking otherwise has become necessary. The process constitutes language itself, which is, in this sense, bound to be metaphoric. But what Egaeus’ “attentive faculty” discovers, is, moreover, a property of the spoken word that distinguishes it from writing and likens it to the effect of a tale: its momentary presence defies time. The spoken word — its meaning — does not endure, it can only be repeated. Although Poe instructs us to reject allegory because it may put more into the open than is desired, we know now that we have always to deal with less. Truth apparently is possible only when words cease to denote.

Seven years after “Berenice,” Poe published “The Landscape Garden,” a little dialogue and manifesto of “true Beauty” (M2: 709). Later, he revised and expanded the tale as “The Domain of Arnheim.”(9) The description of an ideal garden would seem scarcely to resemble the horrors of Egaeus’ family mansion, were it not for the name of Arnheim that links Egaeus’ description of Berenice’s estate with Ellison’s chosen and artfully constructed paradise. Ironically, Egaeus’ and Berenice’s “gloomy, hereditary halls” are in “The Domain of [page 71:] Arnheim” converted to a picturesque and ideal castle in the air. Hints about Berenice’s past as a “nymph of the shrubberies of Arnheim” turn in the “Landscape Garden” into a vision of beauty and a story which, as Poe claimed, “expresse[d] much of [his] soul.”(10) The structures of both stories are similar. If Egaeus searches for identity and true knowledge, Ellison seeks beauty and perfection. In “The Domain of Arnheim,” no theft is involved, no immoral action. Ellison inherits his money and realizes his dream of perfect beauty; even the amount of his inheritance seems beyond imagination. The art of landscape gardening has superseded reading and writing. A friend and companion describes Ellison’s theory, and, in quoting him, reveals his theory as a collection of quotations: from philosophy and garden books, and finally, as regards the name Arnheim itself, from other novels.(11) Like his product, Ellison’s theory cannot be original, but Ellison is less concerned with the originality of the theoretical concept than with its actual realization and representation. The physical existence, material forms fascinate the artist: “the creation of novel moods of purely physical loveliness” (M2: 706; 3: 1271). Beauty itself has changed its attractions. Unlike Egaeus, who in his disinterest in Berenice’s physical perfections seems to leave beauty behind, Ellison holds beauty as the absolute goal. But what is it, that absolute perfection and representation may still suggest?

Ellison seems to be satisfied with the creation of physical beauty alone. His obsession is not only permissible, but required, as is one of his other “principles of Bliss”:(12) the company of his bride, who, we are allowed to suppose, may have become his wife during or after the creation of his earthly paradise. “His bride was the loveliest and most devoted of women” we learn at the beginning of the story (M2: 704; 3: 1269). The narrator later concludes, that, “above all, it was in the sympathy of a woman, not unwomanly, whose loveliness and love enveloped his existence in the purple atmosphere of Paradise, that Ellison thought to find, and found, exemption from the ordinary cares of humanity . . .” (M3: 1277; 2: 716). The nameless bride, however, seems as absent as relatives, workers, friends; we only know of the narrator, who serves as a commentator rather than an influence on the genial master, trying to divine his taste as the master attempts to divine beauty. The bride is absent, of course, unless we look for her in the obvious, something which is suggested by Poe’s motto to both versions of the tale, “The garden like a lady fair was cut,” a motto taken from an allegorical poem often quoted elsewhere, Giles Fletcher’s “Christ’s Victorie on Earth” (M2: 712n). If Egaeus is searching for Berenice’s identity through a study of her body, Ellison’s landscape, this artfully created nature, can be read in terms of its female properties. [page 72:] The geographical map in “the Domain of Arnheim” parallels the anatomical description of Berenice. Both can be understood as voyages of experience, and both are pictured in sexual imagery, here with the goal of bliss as “exaltation” (M2: 708; 3: 1273). Lying in the open, the landscape, designed by the artist, offers herself to the invader. At the same time, the single authorship of the human creator is as questionable as the completeness of the invasion. Instead of the abyss, as in “Berenice,” the traveler envisions here a beautiful castle in the air; this vision, not the entrance into the castle, marks the final radiance, the end of the story. The secret remains.

In Ellison’s concept, the terms of reality are excluded, but replaced by the rules of the critic. Again, in search for beauty, the artist is confronted with a problem of truth:

In landscape alone is the principle of the critic true; and, having felt its truth here, it is but the headlong spirit of generalization which has induced him to pronounce it true throughout all the domains of Art. Having, I say felt its Truth here. For the feeling is no affectation or chimera. The mathematics afford no more absolute demonstrations, than the sentiment of his Art yields to the artist. He not only believes, but positively knows, that such and such apparently arbitrary arrangements of matter, or form, constitute, and along constitute, the true Beauty. Yet his reasons have not yet been matured into expression (M2: 709; 3: 1273).

Beauty, it seems, is already the product of knowledge; it incorporates the truth of art which in turn can only be felt. In the second version, the narrator will have problems similar to the artist’s in describing Ellison’s domain of art: “I wish to describe, but I am disheartened by the difficulty of description, and hesitate between detail and generality” (M3: 1277). The landscape garden can be traveled through, felt, but cannot really be described. Mlle. de Sallé’s “que tour ses pas étaient des sentiments” seems to have found a form of realization.

If in “Berenice” Poe poses the problem of representation as the impossibility of matching the word, as sign, with the signified, in “The Domain of Arnheim,” he seemingly gives us the full experience of unity, of the absolute presence of beauty. Experience itself, shown as a time-dependent travel, is opposed to the momentary insight and the total vision. It seems to be the presence of the interpreter himself, establishing the description and what there is to be described, that prevents this representation.

If Berenice’s teeth have acquired the independence of a living object, Ellison’s landscape is something alive as well as something object-like. [page 73:] In the earlier version of “Berenice” Poe quotes Byron, who confronts the living beauty with the stone ideal. There beauty, apparently, cannot be the property of a passive object; it has to bear the marks of independent life (M2: 708). Life, on the other hand, bearing accidentals, lacks perfection, and what Poe demands is life-in-death. Like the letters and signs on the margins of Egaeus’ books, the landscape has to tell about matter as well as its secret. Furthermore, like Egaeus’ books, the ivory canoe that travels through the Domain is covered with arabesque devices, and glides through the water with the double sharpness of a pen.

The art critic, in the “Domain of Arnheim,” is not simply a voyeur, noting the features and trying to decipher them. His insistence on beauty presupposes a certain knowledge inherent in his understanding of matter. he therefore needs the acquaintance with death as well as life. The traveler through the still treasures of Arnheim, through the immense body of nature, envisions the unexpected home after turning several times, reversing the direction. In her interpretation of Poe’s landscapes, Marie Bonaparte likened the smooth banks of the river to a vision of death.(13) Sliding along the Styx, optimism and hope rather than the horror of Berenice’s body set the mood. The traveler sees beauty as a glimpse, the promise of an order he himself, merely human, cannot perceive: “There might be a class of beings, human once but now to humanity invisible, for whose scrutiny, and for whose refined appreciation of the beautiful, more especially than for our own, had been set in order by God the great landscape-garden of the whole earth” (M2: 709). Or rather, as Poe corrects himself in a later version of the tale: “death-refined appreciation” (M3: 1274). The second, sudden understanding unites the vision of beauty, the moment of fulfillment, with that of death. The privileged artist, Ellison himself, is said to have died at an early age, after having a “brief existence” (M2: 703; 3: 1268). His death has made the garden accessible, “causing his domain to be thrown open to certain classes of visitors” (M3: 1278). Ellison’s garden bears the properties of a testament. The story is told, the garden experienced, after the death of its creator. Again, the narrator arrives too late. Beauty cannot be appreciated by the stripping of the idea from the material object, but by the resignation of one’s own material existence. The final moment of effect, the metaphor, promising absolute representation, reflects its danger: the loss of identity, the loss of one’s self.

Both “Berenice” and “The Domain of Arnheim” show the demands that language should tell of truth and beauty, demands which it cannot fulfill. Unity, identity, fully represented truth or beauty: Poe refers to a speculative moment of effect, a future metaphor which answers for the past. In establishing this metaphor, however, Poe does not escape [page 74:] time. If the interpreter cannot interpret, he fails because the representation of the true and other meaning of the object always involves the acquisition of a different consciousness and the use of different signs. And here all the attempts of replacement and reconstitution of signs have to establish time, despite the wish to overcome it in and for a moment of final experience. Here, ultimately, we have to reach a paradoxical answer: by rejecting it, Poe has to establish allegory.

[page ???:]


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the tenth meeting of the Poe Studies Association in Los Angeles, December 1982.

1.  William Charvat, The Origins of American Critical Thought, 1810-1825 (1936; rpt. New York, 1968), especially pp. 27-59; Robert D. Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge, 1969).

2.  See Poe, “Undine” (review, 1839), H10:30-39; “Alciphron: A Poem” (review, 1840), H10:60-71; “Twice-Told Tales” (review, 1842), H11:104-113; “Tale-Writing. Nathaniel Hawthorne” (review, 1847), H13: 141-155; in regard to Shelley, see for example the Drake/Halleck review (1836), H8: 299 ff.

In regard to the development of Poe’s model, see Jacobs, especially p. 442; Pasquale Jannaccone, “L’Esthetica di Edgardo Poe,” Nuova Antologia, [58, ser. 3] 15 July 1895; trans. Peter Mitilineos, “The Aesthetics of Edgar Poe,” PoeS 7(1974), 1-13; Ulrich Horstmann, Ansdize zu einer technomorphen Theorie der Dichtung bei Edgar Allan Poe (Bern and Frankfurt/M, 1975), pp. 96-102; Claude Richard, Edgar Allan Poe: Journaliste et critique (Paris, 1978). These studies try to relate Poe’s concept of the tale and his understanding of allegory to his concept of imagination and fancy, as well as that of “mysticism.” A reading of Poe’s fiction as allegory and a discussion of its problems can be found in John Irwin, American Hieroglyphics (New Haven and London, 1980), pp. 43-223.

3.  Compare Quintilian, Institutiones oratoriae, 8.6. 8-9 with “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) — H14: 208. As an example of a popular textbook, see Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, first published in Scotland in 1783, especially lecture XV, “Metaphor.” Poe used Rees’s Cyclopaedia for several of his stories, for example “The Gold-Bug.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, also used by Poe (cf. “A Descent into the Maelstrom”), follows the traditional definition, too; the 1771 and later editions document Quintilian with examples from Karnes’s Elements of Criticism (1762). [page 75:]

4.  Compare Franz H. Link, Edgar Allan Poe: Ein Dichter zwischen Romantik and Moderne (Frankfurt/M and Bonn, 1968), p. 71.

5.  Compare for example Eureka (1848) — H16: 298 ff. — and Poe’s early review of Bulwer Lytton’s Night and Morning (1841) — H10: 114-133.

6.  See Margaret Alterton Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925; rpt. New York, 1965); Margaret Alterton and Hardin Craig, “Introduction,” Edgar Allan Poe: Representative Selections (New York, 1935), pp. xvi ff.

7.  M2: 217n. This scene is included in the 1835, 1839, and 1840 versions of the story. For a discussion of Poe’s changes of the tale, see also David E. E. Sloane and Benjamin F. Fisher IV, “Poe’s Revisions in ‘Berenice’: Beyond the Gothic,” ATQ 24, supplement 2(1974), 19-23.

8.  Poe to White, 30 April 1835, 01: 57. Poe published “Berenice” in March in White’s Southern Literary Messenger. In 1841 Poe thought of renaming his story “The Teeth” for his planned Phantasy Pieces.

9.  “The Landscape Garden” first appeared in October 1842 in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion; “The Domain of Amheim” was completed in 1846 and published in March 1847 in the Columbian Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine — quoted here from M3: 12671285.

10.  “Berenice” — M2: 210. Poe refers to the “Domain” in a letter to Helen Whitman, 18 October 1848-02: 397.

11.  “Arnheim” appears in Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein (1829). Poe’s principal source is Andrew Downing’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841).

12.  M2: 703 ff.; compare “The Domain of Amheim,” M3: 1268 ff.

13.  Marie Bonaparte, Edgar Poe: Sa Vie Son Oeuvre (1933; rpt. Paris, 1958), 2: 353 ff.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - In Search of Truth and Beauty (Liliane Weissberg, 1990)