Text: Kent P. Ljungquist, “The Grand and the Fair: Poe in the American Landscape,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1983


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Poe in the American Landscape


Associate Professor of English
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, Massachusetts

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In a 1935 letter, another author associated with literary Baltimore, F. Scott Fitzgerald, commented: “Baltimore is warm and pleasant. I love it more than I thought — it is so rich with memories — it is nice to look up the street and . . . to know that Poe is buried here and that many ancestors of mine have walked the old town by the bay.” It has indeed been pleasant for me this weekend to walk the town by the bay, to share the warm hospitality of the members of the Poe Society, and to participate in this commemoration of Poe’s role in Baltimore’s literary heritage. It is a unique personal honor to have been chosen as your sixtieth Edgar Allan Poe lecturer. In a review from which I shall presently quote, Poe notes that landscape is a topic of unfailing popular interest. I hope that you will agree. I might add, perhaps with some understandable hesitation, that Poe says in the same review that a failure with this topic is a sign of “imbecility.” Whether a success or failure, the paper I shall now read is designed to illuminate those “landscapes of the soul” that have made Poe the object of our enduring attention.

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Ever since the poet William Carlos Williams dubbed Edgar Allan Poe the spontaneous outgrowth of his local American milieu,(1) critics and scholars have overlooked or ignored Williams’ worthwhile suggestion to place Poe on native grounds. In the great array of books on the subject of American landscape and literature, treatment of Poe is scanty or superficial. While approaches to the literature of the American landscape range from the mythic to the ecological to the broadly interdisciplinary, rarely does Poe receive more than cursory mention. Henry Nash Smith’s seminal Virgin Land initiated a generation of mythic approaches to the American frontier, but in Smith’s pages Poe is not mentioned. A more recent entry to the field of mythic speculation, Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence, deals with the impact of the frontier on several of Poe’s contemporaries but never mentions him. Spurred by the conservation movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, numerous studies have ranged widely over the aesthetic, literary, and cultural assumptions that have accreted to the idea of wilderness in America.(2) Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Lee Clark Mitchell’s Witnesses to a Vanishing America are two outstanding studies impelled by the ecological impulse, but Poe receives not a footnote. Equally influential interdisciplinary studies share with those already mentioned a disinclination to treat Poe as a conventional purveyor of American scenery: Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden, in tracing the tension between the drive toward mechanization and the impulse toward pastoralism, overlooks Poe. James Callow’s Kindred Spirits attends to the interrelationships among American landscape painters and authors in the first half of the nineteenth century, but Poe receives only brief mention. Among the book-length studies, Edwin Fussell’s Frontier: American Literature and American West gives somewhat extended treatment to Poe; unfortunately, his analysis is marred by an overzealous desire to read frontier implications in Poe’s writings and by several tonal misreadings of Poe’s pronouncements on wilderness literature.

My goals today are not to rant and rail against academic hesitation about doing what I plan to do in the next forty-five minutes, but: 1) to comment on reasons for the short shrift given to Poe among commentators on the American landscape; 2) to take a cue from William Carlos Williams and suggest one way to place Poe’s writings “in the American grain”; and 3) to discuss implications for Poe’s oeuvre of connecting him with the landscape and settings that surrounded him throughout his career. ­[page 2:]

The short shrift given to Poe is surprising since he wrote at least a half-dozen landscape tales. Furthermore, The Journal of Julius Rodman is overtly a narrative of exploration into the Far West, and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym receives frequent citation as a major source of Melville’s Moby-Dick, a work often studied by students of wilderness literature. Poe also wrote a significant body of poetry that deals with landscape.

The lack of attention to Poe’s position in the context of American landscape literature can probably be explained by addressing the cliché that he stands outside the mainstream of the national literary tradition. With specific reference to wilderness literature, Poe’s review of James Fenimore Cooper’s Wyandotte, or The Hutted Knoll indicates detachment from the typical American novel of the frontier:

In saying that the interest depends, first, upon the nature of the theme, we mean to suggest that this theme — life in the wilderness — is one of intrinsic and universal interest, appealing to the heart of man in all phases; a theme, like that of life upon the ocean, so unfailingly omniprevalent in its power of arresting and absorbing attention, that while success or popularity is, with such a subject, expected as a matter of course, a failure might be properly regarded as conclusive evidence of imbecility on the part of the author. The two theses in question have been handled usque ad nauseam — and this through the instinctive perception of the universal interest which appertains to them. A writer, distrustful of his powers, can scarcely do better than discuss either one or the other. A man of genius will rarely, and should never undertake either; first, because both are excessively hackneyed; and secondly, because the reader never fails, in forming his opinion of a book, for that intrinsic interest which is inseparable from the subject and independent of the manner in which it is treated.(3)

Although the syntax of the passage proceeds sinuously, Poe indicates that the conventional mode of singing the glories of the wilderness nearly guarantees popular success whereas a failure with this theme would signify the author’s “imbecility.” The treatment of Cooper in the review is generally complimentary, but Poe could not damn with fainter praise. He strikes a definite note of condescension in his observation that Cooper is a popular writer because his subject matter — the American landscape — insures the reader’s interest. Poe’s implied criterion defines genius as a matter of skill or execution rather than attention to the obligatory theme of the wilderness. In this review of November 1843, almost a decade before Melville’s exploitation of prairie and frontier ­[page 3:] images in Moby-Dick, Poe displays a weariness with an apparently hackneyed American subject.

If, however, one advances the thesis of Poe’s isolation from the modes of American wilderness literature too pressingly, one encounters a significant paradox. As Fussell points out, no important writer of the period displays greater knowledge of the literature of the American landscape than Edgar Allan Poe.(4) To cite a few examples, the canon of Poe’s criticism reveals an immersion in the subject matter and imagery of national settings, a spate of reviewing that provides a panoramic view of the American landscape. He reviewed James Hall’s famous Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the West (VIII, 108-109), which Melville would later use for the section on “Indian Hating” in The Confidence-Man. He reviewed William D. Callagher’s [[Gallagher’s]] Erato (IX, 73-75), a regional volume dedicated to the prominent Western writer, Timothy Flint. Reviewing Legends of a Log Cabin by a Western Man (VIII, 120-121) by Chandler Gilman, he found himself unfavorably disposed because of the work’s facile inclusion of noble savagery. He said of one Indian tale in the volume, “The Wyandot’s story is . . . good . . . but we have fault to find with the phraseology in this instance. No Indian, let Chateaubriand and others say what they please, ever indulged in the disjointed and hyperbolical humbug attributed to the Wyandot” (VIII, 121). He showed similar impatience with another novel that depended on a landscape setting, J. H. Ingraham’s Lafitte, for its excessive amount of scenic detail. “The novelist is too minutely descriptive. We are surfeited with unnecessary detail. Every little figure is invested with all the dignities of light and shadow, and chiaroscuro” (IX, 114). He disliked Cornelius Matthews’ poem Wakondah because of its conventional, sentimental hymn to noble savagery, mountains, cataracts, and vast wilderness: “He [Matthews] introduces us to Wakondah standing in person upon a mountain-top. He describes his appearance, and thinks that a Chinook would be frightened to behold it. He causes ‘The Master of Life’ to make a speech, which is addressed, in general, to things at large, and particularly to the neighboring Woods. Cataracts, Rivers, Pinnacles, Steeps and Lakes — not to mention an Earthquake. But all these (and we think judiciously) turn a deaf ear to the oration” (XI, 27). Commenting on the scope given to the panorama, Poe notes: “The general conception of the colossal figure on the mountain summit, relieved against the full moon, would be unquestionably grand were it not for the bullish phraseology by which the conception is rendered, in great measure, abortive” (XI, 29). Although some stanzas “convey a striking picture,” Matthews attempts to give a purportedly ­[page 4:] grand subject “a quantity that does not belong to it,” and “the whole idea, in its general want of keeping, is preposterous” (XI, 30). In such works the disciplined taste of the author is lacking to impose either sufficient verisimilitude or scale.

Other reviews indicate Poe’s impatience with writers’ using scenic grandeur for its own sake or for partisan purposes. Discussing William Gilmore Simms’s Damsel of Darien, Poe commented on the way in which American writers allowed nationalistic assumptions about landscape to underwrite the veracity of scenic details:

And how natural, in an age so fanciful [Simms seemed to be saying], to believe that the stars and starry groups beheld in the new world, for the first time by the natives of the old, were especially assigned for its government and protection! Now if by the old world be meant the East, and by the new world the West, we are quite at a loss to know what are the stars seen in one, which cannot be equally seen in the other” (X, 56).

In his caustic review of Seba Smith’s Powhatan: A Metrical Romance (X, 162-167), Poe similarly distinguished the guaranteed success of patriotic American subject matter from artistic skill and execution. In short, Smith could not distinguish retailing the facts of American history from writing a poem. Continuing to condescend, Poe said that Smith had as fine a prose style “as David Crockett ever wrote” (XV, 200). Poe was more favorably disposed to the landscape poetry of William Cullen Bryant for its pictorial qualities, but still strikes a vaguely deprecatory tone in calling “The Prairie” an “wholly excellent local painting” (IX, 282-283). Poe thought Bryant’s Indian poem, “The Hunter of the Prairies,” a “vivid picture of the life of the hunter in the desert,” but echoing the sentiments in his review of Cooper, he remarked, “The poet, however, is here greatly indebted to his subject” (IX, 288).(5) Indeed there seems to be much material in the reviews to indicate that Poe was, in some measure, detached from and critical of the conventional modes of dealing with the characters and scenery of the American wilderness.

The above remarks, however, reveal only one side of the question. Other reviews indicate a more genial regard for the literature of the Western frontier. Poe praised highly Bryant’s “Oh, fairest of the rural maids” precisely because of its identification between character and landscape (IX, 301-303). He also lauded Caroline Kirkland’s regional volumes A New Home, Forest Life, and Western Clearings (XV, 84-86), works that stimulated wide reader interest in and appreciation for frontier life. He reviewed Washington Irving’s Astoria favorably, mentioning ­[page 5:] by the way the Upsaroka Indian tribe, (IX, 231), which he later used to characterize Dirk Peters in Pym. Of Charles Fenno Hoffman’s Winter in the West, a non-fictional work that encompassed the grand and fair in American scenery, Poe noted, “It conveys the natural enthusiasm of the true idealist, in the proper phrenological sense, of the sensitivity alive to beauty in every development. Its scenic descriptions are vivid, because fresh, genuine, unforced” (XV, 118).(6) Apparently Hoffman’s travel book is superior to the efforts of Matthews and Ingraham because of the mixture of ideality and subjectivity with scenic descriptions. Poe was not averse per se to literature about natural setting as his keen admiration for George Pope Morris’ “Woodman, Spare That Tree” indicates (X, 44). In this poem, the life of a tree is analogous to human life, reflecting an aesthetic vogue in which organic objects on the landscape were compared to ruins. The American landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing similarly expressed this idea: “If we have neither old castles nor old associations, we have at least, here and there, old trees that can teach us lessons of antiquity, not less instructive than the ruins of past ages.”(7) In Morris’ poem, landscape acquires human associations by extended analogy, a matching of character and setting congenial to Poe. As in the review of Hoffman, he seems fond of landscapes that open to the vistas of nature but that are disciplined by the mind of the author. On such a score, Poe praises Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes:

Many of the descriptions in this volume are unrivalled for graphicality (why is there not such a word?), for the force by which they convey the true by the novel or unexpected, by the introduction of touches which other artists would be too soon to omit as irrelevant to the subject. This faculty, too, springs from her subjectiveness, which leads her to paint a scene less by its features than by its effects.

Poe cites as an example Fuller’s description of the grand prospect, Niagara. The experience encompasses an attraction toward vast scenery and a sharp focus on inner emotional states. Responding with a mixture of terror and delight, Fuller notes that Niagara:

so drew me into itself as to inspire an undefined dread, such as I never knew before, such as may be felt when death is about to usher us into a new existence . . . . I felt no other sound, however near, could be heard; and would start and look behind me for a foe . . . images, such as had never haunted it before, of naked savages stealing behind me with uplifted tomahawks. . . . after I had thought it over, and tried to shake it off, I could not help looking ­[page 6:] behind me. . . . there all power of observing details, all separate consciousness was lost.(8)

Poe is impressed not so much by descriptive details as by the private feelings of Fuller and the attendant emotive effects on the reader: “The truthfulness of the passages italicized will be felt by all; the feelings described are perhaps experienced by every (imaginative) person who visits the fall; but most persons, through predominant subjectiveness, would scarcely be conscious of the feelings, or, at best, would never think of employing them in an attempt to convey to others an impression of the scene. Hence so many failures to convey it on the part of the tourists” (XV, 75-76). Poe does not view Fuller’s subjective focus as a scanting of Niagara’s grandeur but as a framing device that gives piquancy and definition to the scene.

Thus, we can see that Poe does not cavil relentlessly about works on the American landscape. The reviews of Fuller, Hoffman, Bryant, and Kirkland indicate a judicious appreciation of selected wilderness writings. Moreover, Poe’s interest in Western materials continued until the year of his death. One commentator has seen his final poem, “Eldorado,” as a specifically Western ballad in the frontier tradition.(9) Thus the paradox of Poe’s relationship to the American landscape presents itself. As his acerbic reviews and the work of some authorities on the subject indicate, Poe remained somewhat detached from the conventional ways of looking at the American wilderness. The hackneyed notion that Poe maintained isolation from this type of writing, however, deserves more critical scrutiny; in fact, Poe displayed wide knowledge of the authors, techniques, and modes of native frontier literature.

Aside from perceptive remarks in his criticism on specific works, we need only turn to the range of landscape images in his tales to understand how thoroughly Poe mastered techniques that less capable authors would apply to conventional American settings. We remember immediately the popular image of landscape as mine in Julius Rodman, attracting adventurers to glory and wealth. If Cornelius Matthews and Seba Smith could exploit the wilderness panorama — a mountain top or cliff-top prospect — Poe would marshal a similar technique in “A Descent into the Maelström” to heighten a Scandinavian perspective. While environmental reform became the mania of landscape aficionados — the improvement of natural scenery by careful discriminations — Poe would suggest in “The Landscape Garden” that such tasteful enhancements provided the “fairest field” for inventing novel ­[page 7:] forms of beauty.(10) If contemporaries like Joseph Rodman Drake sentimentally transformed the American wilderness into an enchanted fairyland, Poe would offer his own prospect piece or “scene of fancy,” “The Island of the Fay,” with careful modulation of its narrator’s hypnotic mood into dark disillusionment.(11) While his contemporaries presented a latter-day Adam confronting America as a New World Garden, Poe would develop his own version of the Edenic metaphor in “Eleonora,” its narrator and heroine shut up, as it were, in a prison-paradise of grandeur and glory.(12) If rival authors developed mythic voyages to magic, enchanted mountains à la Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Poe would describe his own duplicitous “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” in which a vista outside Charlottesville, Virginia, becomes transformed into an exotic Eastern dream land.(13) Perhaps his most popular fictional effort, “The Gold Bug,” has remained a favorite because of its reliance on native American settings, themes, and character types.

In his tales and criticism, Poe consistently admits vast landscape as a psychological fact; his vocabulary attests to his kinship with other authors’ treatments. For Poe, landscape encompasses the “vast,” “grand,” “awesome,” “singular,” “unsurpassed,” “unrivalled,” “arresting,” and “absorbing.” Poe’s review of Fuller acknowledges explicitly the capacity of landscape scenery to charge individual consciousness. Poe thus echoes the litany of superlatives that other authors applied to America’s unspoiled wilds. Invariably, however, Poe sets in relief inchoate land forms by attention to “effect,” “subjectivity,” “keeping,” “manner of presentation,” “phraseology” — in short, to technique and execution. Poe’s treatment of landscape oscillates between the grand on one hand and the fair on the other — the “grand” standing for wilderness in its artless, unenhanced state, the “fair” representing nature subject to the artist’s craft or executive skill. The outward drive to confront landscape in its teeming majesty and the centripetal impulse toward order and artistic control constitute the twin rhythms of Poe’s landscape fiction and criticism. Poe’s traverse through American scenery thus charts a course between the vast, mysterious splendor of nature’s grand design and the subtle, elusive beauty of a fair world well-kept.

Nowhere do these contrasting rhythms display themselves more strikingly than in The Journal of Julius Rodman, published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1840 at what might be termed the midpoint of Poe’s career. Some internal contradictions in this curious work have already been observed. Poe portrays a strangely exotic hero in a Wild West setting. The “novel” ran serially in Burton’s from January to ­[page 8:] June, 1840, but remained unfinished. By Poe’s standards, the work is lengthy, apparently violating his aesthetic criterion of brevity. Poe attempts an impression of verisimilitude, but includes hints of hoax, as in the catalogue of nonsensical names of Indian tribes. Finally and most seriously, there is the charge of plagiarism.(14) Poe was apparently unable to sustain his tale of adventure without heavy reliance on an array of unacknowledged sources.(15) Although sources gave credibility to the narrative, Poe provided, by and large, the unearthly landscapes of Julius Rodman. The landscape descriptions point to one reason why Julius Rodman remained an abortive fragment.(16)

The Journal begins promisingly as a grandiose tour of exploration that would certainly appeal to the author of Pym, also a tale of discovering uncharted territory. As the editor indicates, Julius Rodman, possessed of “a great deal of romantic fervor” (IV, 10), enters undiscovered country:

The Journal which follows not only embodies a relation of the first successful attempt to cross the gigantic barriers of that immense chain of mountains which stretches from the Polar Sea in the north, to the Isthmus of Darien in the south, forming a craggy and snow-capped rampart throughout its whole course, but, what is of still greater importance, gives the particulars of a tour, beyond these mountains, through an immense extent of territory which, at this day, is looked upon as totally untravelled and unknown, and which, in every map of the country to which we can obtain access, is marked as ‘an unexplored region!’ (IV, 9-10).

Poe’s diction reflects a body of literature in which the immense wilderness connotes the “unknown” or “unexplored,” and as the early description of Poe’s hero indicates, Rodman is the perfect character for such a monumental quest. At one point, he is described, in this grand setting, much as a frontier writer might present a wilderness hero: “He was possessed of a burning love of Nature; and worshipped her, perhaps, more in her dreary and savage aspects, than in her manifestations of placidity and joy. He stalked through that immense and often terrible wilderness with an evident rapture at his heart which we envy him as we read. . . . He was indeed the man to journey amid all that solemn desolation which he, plainly, loved to depict” (IV, 13-14). At about a third of the way through the novel, Rodman remains enraptured by the challenge of the quest

As I looked up the stream (which here stretched away to the westward, until the waters apparently met the sky in the great distance) and reflected on the immensity of territory through which ­[page 9:] those waters had probably passed, a territory as yet altogether unknown to white people, and perhaps abounding in the magnificent works of God, I felt an excitement of soul such as I had never before experienced, and secretly resolved that it should be no slight obstacle which should prevent my pushing up this noble river farther than any previous adventurer had done. At that moment I seemed possessed of an energy more than human; and my animal spirits rose to so high a degree that I could with difficulty content myself in the narrow limits of the boat. I longed to be with the Greelys on the bank, that I might give full vent to the feelings which inspired me, by leaping and running on the prairie. (IV, 33-34)

At approximately this juncture, however, the scenic descriptions change. In addition, the narrative acquires a dry, reportorial air as Poe relies even more heavily on his sources. The uncontrollable energies of Rodman became less vital, and the possibilities of a grand, romantic quest are vitiated. What began as a saga of the Western frontier acquires the qualities of a leisurely, scenic tour. Rodman remarks: “One interest seemed to bind all; or rather we appeared to be a band of voyagers without interest in view — mere travellers for pleasure” (IV, 76). Rodman and his companions engage in a scenic expedition but not a quest. Most curious of all, Rodman confesses that he is hardly interested in pelts and treasures, objects of a bona-fide wilderness expedition:

Men who had travelled thousands of miles through a howling wilderness, beset by horrible dangers, and enduring the most heart-rending privations for the ostensible reason of collecting peltries, would seldom take the trouble to secure them when obtained, and would leave behind them without a sigh an entire cache of fine beaver skins rather than forego the pleasures of pushing up some romantic-looking river, or penetrating some craggy and dangerous cavern, for minerals whose use they knew nothing about, and which they threw aside as lumber at the first direct opportunity. (IV, 76)

To say the least, Poe seems uncertain of this change in the narrative. His persona Rodman alternates between apologia for the desultory nature of the expedition and fascination with the glories of the landscape. His hero becomes:

less and less interested in the main business of the expedition, and more and more willing to turn aside in pursuit of idle amusement — if indeed I am right in calling by so feeble a name as amusement that deep and most intense excitement with which I surveyed the wonders and majestic beauties of the wilderness. No sooner had I examined one region than I was possessed with an irresistible desire to push forward and explore another. (IV, 73) ­[page 10:]

The practical, adventurous elements of the frontier quest are vitiated by an aesthetic interest in scenery. Chapter III contains one of the most striking examples of this shift. Supposedly the American frontier hero, Rodman encounters not Indian savages, wild cataracts, or awesome forests, but a scene that has all the earmarks of a formal eighteenth century landscape garden. In his description of the trees, flowers, and streams of the island, “the whole bore a wonderful resemblance to an artificial flower garden, but was infinitely more beautiful — looking rather like some of these scenes of enchantment which we read of in old books. We were all in ecstasy with the spot, and prepared our camp in the highest glee, amid its wilderness of sweets” (IV, 44). With the transformation from frontiersman to aesthete almost complete, the scenery elicits memories of ancient enchantments rather than future challenges of exploration. The basic paradox of Julius Rodman involves the desire to write a story about an eighteenth-century landscape garden in the framework of an American wilderness setting. The aesthetic contradictions, even absurdities, of such a thrust must have become apparent to Poe. Many of the scenic descriptions are aesthetic, formal, tasteful, noe-classical [[neo-classical]], quasi-aristocratic — hardly the type of scenic treatment suited to a robust wilderness novel. Poe sensed the contradiction in trying to transfer a garden to the wilderness, and Julius Rodman foundered after a few installments.

In the background of the failure of Julius Rodman lies an entire array of rich aesthetic assumptions about landscape that go back several centuries before Poe. To state the proposition quite broadly, and perhaps simplistically, American Romantic literature received support from a full-scale redaction of eighteenth-century aesthetics that acquired a peculiarly native flavor.

This set of assumptions, roughly conforming to Poe’s predilection for “the grand and the fair” in landscape scenery, constitute a polarity between forms sublime or beautiful. In the explicit terminology of the locus classicus on the subject, Edmund Burke’s Enquiry, Poe’s interest in landscape embraces the sublime and beautiful. Viewed in an historical context, these categories, deriving from an English and a Continental framework, imply a novel way of looking at nature. For Burke, whose greatly influential Enquiry gave sanction to the terms, beauty derives from feelings of love, gentleness, and pleasure while whatever excites pain and danger evokes the sublime. The sublime also provokes sensations of “power,” “vastness,” “infinity,” and “magnificence”; its attendant effects on the observer result from our consciousness opening to the forces of nature. The beholder is often overwhelmed by sensations ­[page 11:] of terror, astonishment, awe, admiration, and reverence. The sublime thus forms a striking contrast to the more subdued and moderate appeal of beauty.

Poe, who in his writings displays an early and abiding interest in the supposedly antithetical categories of sublimity and beauty,(17) thus inherited a long tradition of finding aesthetic qualities in landscape. His characteristic appetite for the grand and fair in nature finds striking expression in Rodman, the failure of which signals his keenly aesthetic appreciation of landscape scenery.

In view of Poe’s aesthetic background, his non-completion of Julius Rodman is understandable, if not predictable. His inability to complete a saga of the West derives from an attempt to impose aesthetics that had developed from a neo-classical, quasi-aristocratic tourist literature, on an aggressive frontier situation. Nowhere is this formal aesthetic stance more prominent than in the following passage that purports to describe a spot in Missouri. Rodman observes the striking beauty of the scene that brings together the characteristics of art and nature in novel combination:

The prairies exceeded in beauty anything told in the tales of the Arabian Nights. On the edges of the creeks there was a wild mass of flowers which looked more like Art than Nature, so profusely and fantastically were their colors blended together. Their rich odor was almost oppressive. Every now and then we came to a kind of green island of trees, placed amid an ocean of purple, blue, orange, and crimson blossoms, all waving to and fro in the wind. The islands consisted of the most majestic forest oaks, and, beneath them, the grass resembled a robe of softest green velvet, while upon their huge stems there clambered, generally, a profusion of grape vines, laden with delicious ripe fruit. The Missouri, in the distance, presented the most majestic appearance; and many of the real islands with which it was studded were entirely covered with plum bushes, or other shrubbery, except where crossed in various directions by narrow, mazy paths, like the alleys in an English flower-garden. (IV, 42)

With the sublime majesty of the American wilderness circumscribed by a taste for formal gardening, the description might function more appropriately for Alexander Pope’s Twickenham estate than for a Missouri River locale. Poe must have sensed the disjunction between the aesthetic demands of the formal garden and those required by the aggressive wilderness, and Julius Rodman remained unfinished. But the unearthly landscapes, which seem so out of place in an American wilderness setting, are more understandable if we keep in mind Poe’s aesthetic ­[page 12:] education and background in the sublime and beautiful. The scene, which leaves in Rodman’s mind “an impression of novelty — of singularity, which can never be effaced” (IV, 91), is an area of huge structured cliffs, which seem to “enclose large artificial gardens” (IV, 91). Of “extraordinary aspect” and “very artificial character,” these cliffs suggest a wild grandeur kept in check by polished taste. The structures are:

chequered with a variety of lines formed by the trickling of the rains upon the soft material, so that a fertile fancy might easily imagine them to be gigantic monuments reared by human art, and carved over with hieroglyphical devices. Sometimes there are complete niches (like those we see for statues in common temples) formed by the dropping out bodily of large fragments of the sandstone; and there are several points where staircases and long corridors appear, as accidental fractures in the freestone cornice happened to let the rain trickle down uniformly upon the softer material below. We passed these singular bluffs in a bright moonlight and their effect upon my imagination I shall never forget. They had all the air of enchanted structures (such as I have dreamed of). (IV, 90)

The incongruity of this description results from the placement of huge artificial monuments in an American wilderness setting. The European taste for vistas in keeping with well-defined principles of natural adornment, derived from the long-developing aesthetics of nature, receives more emphasis than the future-oriented landscapes of the conventional wilderness quest. Elsewhere in Julius Rodman, the descriptions of chasms, caverns, caves with grotesque images, artificial channels, mysterious ravines, shadowy gorges, and gigantic columns remind us more of the landscapes developed by men of tasteful discrimination and refinement than those portrayed by robust, unschooled frontier types.

In his 1835 review of Clinton Bradshaw; or the Adventures of a Lawyer, by F. W. Thomas, Poe commented: “While the author aims at originality, and evidently fancies himself the pioneer of a new region of felicitous literature, he has, we think, unwittingly stumbled upon that very worst species of imitation” (VIII, 109). Thomas’ novel was intended as an American pendant to Bulwer’s Pelham; or the Adventures of a Gentleman in England. As the citation above and others in this paper indicate, Poe sensed that authors like Bradshaw, who attempted to “pioneer” native themes and settings, often resorted to the “most slavish respect for borrowed elegances.”(18) Although Poe remained remarkably prescient about attempts to localize theme and plot in America, he also sensed a tension in merging native grandeur with ­[page 13:] European taste. The contradiction of introducing a garden into the wilderness finds its most striking expression in Julius Rodman, a paradox broached by Poe’s aesthetic predilection for the grand and the fair in nature — the sublime and the beautiful. These aesthetic principles function successfully, however, not in Julius Rodman but in other selected tales and poems, even in those works in which landscape plays a more minimal role.

The sublime and the beautiful, which Burke and his followers separated as rigid categories, could strike novel effects by their mutual tension; to borrow Poe’s phraseology, contraries could coalesce in “novel combination,” a much more aesthetically satisfactory reconciliation than that in Rodman where the grand and fair seem to work at cross purposes. The skillful artist could bring sublimity and beauty into an uneasy equilibrium to achieve a heightened aesthetic effect; in the words of Poe’s review of Longfellow’s Poems, beauty could be “heightened into the sublime, by terror” (XI, 78). This coincidence of supposed opposites — reflecting a terror that is beautiful and a beauty that appalls — emerges even in Poe’s works that do not deal overtly with landscape.

Not often grouped with Poe’s landscape fiction, “Ligeia” represents perhaps Poe’s most significant exploration of the sublime and the beautiful, as his famous 1839 letter to Philip Pendleton Cook indicates:

Touching ‘Ligeia’ you are right — all right — throughout. The gradual perception that Ligeia lives again in the person of Rowena is a far loftier and more thrilling idea than the one I have embodied. It offers in my opinion, the widest possible scope to the imagination — it might be rendered even sublime. (Ostrom, I, 118)

Poe offered this response to Cooke’s suggestion that the narrator’s perception of Ligeia’s death was too precipitate. Poe’s reply indicates that he wanted to place the situation more prominently in the consciousness of the narrator. In other words, he wanted to describe the straining of a character’s faculties under the stress of an imminent supernatural revelation, to keep the exhilarating splendor of Ligeia’s return within his narrator’s troubled psyche.

Although the sublime and the beautiful most often applied to scenes grand and fair in external nature, Poe seems to exploit their effects for psychological purposes in “Ligeia.” In the guises of the raven-haired, wild-eyed Ligeia and the fair-haired, blue-eyed Rowena, Poe gives human dimension to “forms grand and fair.” He feminizes aesthetic categories, his assignment of gender characteristics to landscape established by the epigraph and story proper of “The Landscape Garden” in ­[page 14:] which his garden lies like “a fair lady.”(19) Poe’s brand of “natural supernaturalism”(20) marks an attempt to humanize the sublimity of Ligeia’s divine will. The antithetical qualities of sublimity and beauty become simultaneous expressions of heavenly and earthly power; Poe’s dark and light heroines present a dazzling chiaroscuro before the narrator’s ravaged consciousness. Darkness and light correspond to the ecstatic terror and uneasy peace represented by the respective heroines; the division reflects the narrator’s disorientation but also the contraries that permeate human existence.

For the narrator, a man “buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world,” Ligeia provides the sole outlet to the world of life or vitality. Her presence offers the sole reminder of natural grandeur in a tale nearly circumscribed by artificial surroundings, the pentagonal chamber enclosing or imprisoning the fair Rowena. By fitful association with Ligeia’s majestic beauty, the narrator awakens to the resiliency of the natural world. He senses “that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and untrodden path” lies forbidden knowledge.(21) With Ligeia’s supposed death and her pallid replacement by Rowena, however, sublime majesty is diminished to the dross of mere earthly beauty.

From the beginning of the aesthetic tradition that nurtured Poe’s works, the sublime and the beautiful sanctioned pursuit of visionary themes. The sublime, in particular, acquired the broader connotation of the ineffable. Sublimity, which most often applied to the realm of natural sensations, suggests in “Ligeia” the narrator’s discovery of a visionary grandeur that lies beyond the veil of mortal existence. In their defiance of mortal limits, both the narrator and Ligeia display a thirst for ultimate knowledge that resides on the boundary between life and death. Poe’s conscious use of the sublime, as outlined in his letter to Cooke, is underscored by his desire to locate the situation even more emphatically in the overstrained mind of the narrator. As in Poe’s writings on external landscape, response to sublime grandeur is constrained or filtered through subjective consciousness. Reflecting Paul John Eakin’s suggestion that “in Poe’s sense of an ending the novel and the sublime are frequently linked,”(22) the conclusion of “Ligeia” constitutes Poe’s most outstanding expression of sublimity declaring itself in the guise of beauty; Poe joins the grand and the fair as Ligeia occupies the body of Rowena.

By this time, you have undoubtedly observed my broad departure from the American landscape to join Poe’s narrator in decayed abbeys ­[page 15:] and cities by the Rhine, a somewhat predictable transit, since Poe’s participation in the mainstream of American landscape literature is marked, if anything, by his refusal to ape the details of native scenery. He turned down the easy route to success by writing Indian epics, romances of the forest, and sagas of the New World. Because writing of such subjects, William Carlos Williams notes, would be an automatic hit, Poe counselled fellow writers to avoid them. Rather, Poe emphasized method and execution; the sublime and the beautiful became primary tools in describing the grand and fair in nature or elsewhere. These modes of description allowed him to traverse those boundary states of consciousness that bridged the gap from grand vistas in external nature to fairer landscapes of the mind. In clipping away the conventional scenery, Poe adopts a “firmness of INSIGHT”(23) that probes rather than details scenic values. If I might end by paraphrasing his Preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Poe told us, after all, that terror was not of Germany, nor of the American wilderness, nor of any specific location, but of the soul.

­ [page 15, continued:]


1.  William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1925), pp. 216-230. Still a helpful corrective to interpretations that isolate Poe from his social milieu is Ernest Marchand, “Poe as a Social Critic,” American Literature, 6 (1934), 28-43.

2.  See Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1950); Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press. 1973); Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967); Lee Clark Mitchell, Witnesses to a Vanishing America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982); Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964); James Callow, Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1967); Edwin Fussell, Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965).

For attention to Poe among students of the American landscape, see Hans Huth, Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1957); John Conron, ed. The American Landscape (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973); Edward Halsey Foster, Civilized Nature: Backgrounds to American Romanticism, 1817-1860 (New York: Free Press, 1975). The most explicit treatment of Poe as a purveyor of landscape, outside of Fussell’s, is by Elizabeth Phillips, “The Imagination of Great Landscape,” in Edgar Allan Poe: An American Imagination (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1979), pp. 53-96. My reservations about Phillips’ analysis are registered in a review-essay, “Poe and the American Scene,” Poe Studies, 13 (1980), 14-15. ­[page 16:]

3.  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: AMS Press, 1902/1965), XI, 205-206. Hereafter cited in the text by volume and page number.

4.  Fussel, p. 132[[.]]

5.  The same note is struck in a remark about Washington Irving. After reviewing Astoria and The Crayon Miscellany, Poe wrote: “Irving is much overrated, and a nice distinction might be drawn between his just and his surreptitious and adventitious reputation — between what is due to the pioneer solely and what to the writer.” John Ward Ostrom, ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Gordian Press, 1966), I, 112. Hereafter cited in the text by editor and page number. The reference to “pioneer” is probably a reference to Irving’s reliance on the subject matter of the West.

6.  Hoffman contrasts, for example, the grandeur of the Hudson River and the beauty of the Susquehanna. Despite the favorable review, Poe notes with condescension: “Mr. Hoffman’s hero [an Indian character in the story ‘the Vigil of Faith’] is made to discourse very much after the manner of Rousseau” (XV, 120).

7.  Quoted by Paul Shepard, in Man in the Landscape (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 186.

8.  It is interesting to compare this passage, which Poe admired, with comments on Niagara in his review “A Few Notes About Brainard” (Graham’s Magazine, 1842). Poe takes the author to task for reducing the mighty torrent of Niagara by introducing trifling imagery.

9.  Burton R. Pollin, “Poe’s ‘Eldorado’ Viewed as a Song of the West,” Prairie Schooner, 46 (1972), 228-235.

10.  The cause of environmental reform has received extended study from Cecilia Tichi, New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979). Tichi, however, does not mention “The Domain of Arnheim” as a prime example of environmental reform. Her neglect of Poe is noted by David Schuyler in his untitled review, New England Quarterly, 54 (1981), 295-297.

11.  I argue that Poe’s sketch may be a reaction to sentimental treatments of fairyland like Drake’s in “Poe’s ‘The Island of the Fay’: The Passing of Fairyland,” Studies in Short Fiction, 14 (1977), 265-271.

12.  See my note “The Influence of ‘Adonais’ on ‘Eleonora,’ ” Poe Studies, 10 (1977), 27-28, for comments on Poe’s qualified vision of paradise in the tale.

13.  The deceptive surface of the tale is penetrated by G. R. Thompson, “Is Poe’s ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ a Hoax?” Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (Summer 1969), 454-460.

14.  These peculiarities are noted by Stuart Levine, “Poe’s Julius Rodman: Judaism, Plagiarism, and the Wild West,” Mid-West Quarterly, 1(1960), 245-259. See also Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterium Books, 1960), pp. 370-371 and John J. Teunissen and Evelyn Hinz, “Poe’s Julius Rodman as Parody,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 27 (1972), 317-338.

15.  See Edmund Clarence Stedman and George Woodberry, eds., The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Scribner’s, 1927), V, 355-360; Arlin Turner, “Note on Poe’s ‘Julius Rodman,’ ” University of Texas Studies in English, 10 (1930), pp. 146-151; Polly Pearl Crawford, “Lewis and Clark’s Expedition as a Source for Poe’s ‘Julius Rodman,’ ” University of Texas Studies in English, 12 (1932), pp. 158-170; Turner, “Another Source for Poe’s Julius Rodrnan,” American Literature, 8 (1936), 69-70; Wayne R. Kime, “Poe’s Use of Mackenzie’s Voyages in ‘The Journal of Julius Rodman.’ ” Western American Literature, 3 (1968), 61-67: and Kime, “Poe’s Use of Irving’s Astoria in “The Journal of Julius Rodman.’ ” American Literature, 40 (1968), 215-222. ­[page 17:]

16.  G. R. Thompson says of Rodman: “The unfinished story has received comparatively little critical attention, and imaginative structures like those that fascinate critics in Pym have not been detected — “Edgar Allan Poe,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 3: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, ed., Joel Myerson (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1979) p. 273. Burton Pollin’s copious notes on Rodman in Poe’s Imaginary Voyages (Boston: G. K. Hall 1980) provide thematic links to other works. Pollin notes reasons for non-completion, pp. 509-511.

17.  See my “Poe and the Sublime: His Two Short Sea Tales in the Context of an Aesthetic Tradition,” Criticism, 17 (1975), 131-151.

18.  The quotation is from Wallace Stegner who tellingly suggests that American responses to the frontier paradoxically aped European models in Wolf-Willow: A History, A Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), pp. 22-23.

19.  In the Enquiry Burke suggests that beauty, in particular, arises from response to that loveliness of woman. An even more schematic assignment of aesthetic terminology via sex roles is found in Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764) (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1960), pp. 76-96. Garrett Bolger, in a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar which I attended in 1977, first suggested the relationship between Burke’s terminology and Poe’s heroines, though my conclusions differ from his. Poe’s connection of feminine beauty and landscape is also evident in “Eleonora”: his assignment of gender characteristics to landscape is reflected in the names of rivers in Rodman: Bonhomme and Osage Femme Rivers. A full study of the sexual significance of landscape is by Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1975).

20.  The terminology is, of course, from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus; my analysis of the conjunction of beauty and sublimity is indebted to M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), pp. 97-117.

21.  In this terribly circumscribed tale, the only other references to the natural world include a ”rapidly growing vine,” “a stream of running water,” and “the sheltered recesses of . . . glens.” All these references, in the narrator’s mind, evoke thoughts of Ligeia and are cited from Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Tales and Sketches, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978), II, 310-330.

22.  Paul John Eakin, “Poe’s Sense of an Ending,” American Literature, 45 (1973), 1-22.

23.  Williams, p. 229[[.]]



This lecture was delivered at the Sixtieth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 3, 1983.

© 1983 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - GAF, 1982] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Grand and the Fair (K. P. Ljungquist, 1982)