Text: Blake Nevius, “Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics,” Poe Studies, December 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 18:26-27


[page 26:]


Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics

Kent Ljungquist. The Grand and the Fair Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques. Potomac, Maryland: Scripta Humanistica, 1984. 216 pages.

If, as many believe, Poe is the most difficult American writer to deal with in any manner approaching final definition, it also can be argued that the function of landscape in his fiction and poetry is one of the most protean and challenging topics that the student of Poe can undertake. The Good and the Fair takes a long stride toward introducing order and continuity into Poe’s transactions with the American landscape and offers a thesis that strikes one as valid in spite of the few occasions when the facts are pressured into line. This is an engaging as well as thoughtful monograph. Not content with familiarizing himself with a single aspect of Poe’s writing, the author has read widely and carefully in the canon and has consulted seemingly all of the secondary material bearing on his topic. He has an attractively straightforward and flexible style. In one or two respects, which I will consider later, it may be objected that his homework is deficient, though to what degree this compromises his thesis is open to question.

Ljungquist’s title derives from the assumption that “Poe’s treatment of landscape oscillates between the grand on the 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” (10). In other words, Poe joins the discussion of the relative claims of Nature and Art that attracted so much attention from contemporary poets, painters, novelists, and landscape artists. In the context of Ljungquist’s argument, the term “oscillates” might be questioned, since, to put the matter broadly, he sees Poe’s emphasis as moving surely from Nature to Art, from the sublime to the picturesque, from the exterior to the interior landscape, from spatial openness to spatial limitation. The means by which this shift is achieved is Poe’s growing awareness of the possibilities of the picturesque: “If his fiction of the 1840’s reflected a movement away from vastness and grandeur in favor of more circumscribed settings, the major vehicle for this transition was the aesthetic of the picturesque” (89). The pivotal work marking this transition in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the picturesque mode, embodied in the description of the house and its environs, not only provides the proper “circumscription of space” and, for the narrator, an analogy for Roderick’s condition, but also leads us from exteriority to inferiority — in short, to Poe’s characteristic preoccupation with morbid psychology. Ljungquist finds the same pattern in the poetry, and his tracking of the daemonic through [column 2:] its various alliances with the sublime and the picturesque, from Al Aaraaf to “The Raven,” is one of his more interesting speculative ventures. In general, however, the poetry, possibly because there is less of it in the later period, proves to be more recalcitrant than the prose in lending itself to Ljungquist’s thesis. The prominent exception to this general movement from the sublime to the picturesque is, of course, Eureka. Ljungquist meets this challenge (with what success each reader will have to judge for himself) by suggesting that “the sublime provides part of the ornamentation in Eureka to give the theoretical vision of the universe a poetic tinge” (88).

If the reader experiences any uneasiness in accepting Ljungquist’s argument, not so much in its general trend as in its particulars, it is because the author has paid comparatively little first-hand attention to the aesthetics of the picturesque, citing the precarious assumption that “there is little external evidence that Poe had detailed knowledge of particular British aestheticians of the picturesque, such as Gilpin, Price, Repton, William Chambers, and Thomas Whately” (36). Unfortunately, there is no way of validating or disproving this claim except by going directly to the writings of Price, Repton, and company; it is not enough to say that “Poe seems to rely on a general knowledge of the picturesque movement rather than his indebtedness to a particular aesthetician” (39). How did he acquire that general knowledge? He demonstrably had read Burke, he probably read Payne Knight. Why not Uvedale Price? At any rate, Ljungquist’s account of the picturesque strikes one as incomplete. For example, by accepting the picturesque as a discrete category located midway between the sublime and the beautiful, he fails to allow for the observation, made by Price, that it may ally itself with the sublime on the one hand or the beautiful on the other. This could be what he means when he asserts that “the picturesque, as a category, has a volatile character,” with “qualities of elasticity, instability, and flexible resourcefulness,” but the illustrative quotation that follows undercuts this possibility (40). Similarly, Ljungquist’s argument might have gained added authority had he taken some account of the contemporary theory of fiction, crude as it is, that resides in the prefaces to novels written before and during Poe’s era. Had he done so, he might have paid more particular attention to those crucial terms “novelty” and “variety” which figure so compulsively in both Poe’s criticism and that of his admittedly inferior precursors.

I mentioned earlier Ljungquist’s occasional tendency to put undue strain on the evidence supporting his line of argument. This seems to me the case, for example, with respect to The Journal of Julius Rodman, about which, on the basis of three rather isolated passages in which Art seems to be encroaching on the untamed Nature of the western landscape, he concludes that Poe’s “inability to complete a saga of the West derives from an attempt to impose aesthetics . . . on an aggressive frontier situation” (44) and, subsequently, that “Poe must have sensed the disjunction between the aesthetic demands of the formal garden and those [page 27:] required by the aggressive wilderness, and Julius Rodman remained unfinished” (44). By the same logic, one might argue, Washington Irving, who saw the lofty trees along the Arkansas River as the stately columns and their autumn-tinted leaves as the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral, ought never to have finished A Tour on the Prairies.

These may be construed as blemishes in an otherwise serious and useful study, one that should provide the impetus for further discussion. I think it is fair to say that Ljungquist’s treatment leans more heavily on landscape theory than on pictorial techniques, and the redressing of this emphasis may indicate a direction for future studies.

Finally, I noted a dozen typos. Not a large number, but disconcerting in so short a book.

Blake Nevius, University of California, Los Angeles, Emeritus


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]