Text: David Ketterer, “The Sexual Abyss: Consummation in ‘The Assignation’,” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, June 1986, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 19:7-10


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The Sexual Abyss: Consummation in “The Assignation”

Concordia University, Montreal

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Criticism of “The Assignation” suggests that it may well be the singly most illuminating of Poe’s tales. It was in regard to this work that doubt concerning the basic seriousness of an apparently serious Poe text first arose. Building upon the evidence that Poe was inspired by Byron’s romance with the Countess Guiccioli, Edward H. Davidson, in 1956, described “The Assignation” as a “lampooning of the tale of passion,“(1) and, in 1963, Richard P. Benton argued that the piece was primarily conceived as a deliberate hoax:

I see “The Assignation” as a Poesque attempt to deceive those readers of Poe’s time who were ordinarily shocked by the Byronic message. I believe that it is a kind of allegorical parody in which Poe played a joke on these readers by not only presenting Byron, the Countess Guiccioli, and her old husband in the guises of his hero heroine and villain but also by presenting Byron’s friend and confident [and biographer], the Irish poet Thomas Moore, in the guise of the narrator of the story.(2)

Benton’s view has been most fully developed by G. R. Thompson and most effectively contested by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, who analyzes the substantive differences between the first version of the tale published as “The Visionary” in Godey’s Lady’s Book (January 1834) and and [[sic]] the text as it appeared in The Broadway Journal (7 June 1845) — a retitled reprinting (with slight variations) of the heavily revised Southern Literary Messenger version (July 1835).(3) Fisher concludes that “the revisions support just as much sober as jocular intent — if not a shade more of the former.“(4) Certainly the Byronic material need not be taken exclusively in a humorous vein, especially if we attend with Dennis Pahl, to the likelihood that Poe regarded Byron as his “strong precursor.“(5)

My view of the essential seriousness of “The Assignation” has to do with a second generally illuminating feature, the fact that this tale, in all its versions, provides the clearest account of the agential function of Poe’s “arabesque” rooms. I have argued elsewhere that the unhappily married Marchesa Aphrodite agrees to the suicide pact proposed by her lover, the visionary stranger, because he convinces her in the opening allegorical tableau of death and resurrection (in which he rescues the Marchesa’s — and probably his — baby from the Styx-like canal in Venice) of an existence beyond death, an idealized “arabesque” reality.(6) In the dazzling apartment in the second part of the tale, it appears that, by experimenting with decor and mixing incongruous items of furniture, the stranger has aesthetically overcome “Proprieties of space, and especially of time.“(7) That is to say, the room emblematizes the stranger’s sense of a supernal reality beyond death and augments his “translation” to that state. The possibility remains, of course, that the [column 2:] stranger has simply imposed his mad delusion on the desperate Marchesa in their suicide pact.

These two controversial issues manifest in “The Assignation” (is Poe being serious or not? is his protagonist sane or mad?) apply broadly to much of Poe’s canon and bear on the more particular riddling puzzles that abound in this text. One of the apartment’s puzzles that appears in all versions of the tale has not as yet been thoroughly explored: the sexual imagery implicit in its artwork.

Just before the climax when the stranger joins the Marchesa in suicide, the narrator describes a “full-length portrait‘’ of the Marchesa Aphrodite in the stranger’s room: “Her right arm lay folded over her bosom. With her left she pointed downwards to a curiously fashioned vase” (II, 164).(8) The attentive reader should here recall the stranger’s earlier description of the Medici Venus (Venus being the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love): “part of the left arm (here his voice dropped so as to be heard with difficulty,) and all the right, are restorations; and in the coquetry of that right arm lies [pun intended?], I think, the quintessence of all affection” (II, 160). The parenthetical whisper emphasizes the fact that the hand of the left arm of this statue of the nude female form conceals the pubic area, the “mound of Venus.” The “coquetry” of the right arm, to which the stranger alludes, serves to misdirect the reader’s focus from the greater coquetry of the left. Thus the portrait, subsequently uncovered by the stranger’s ‘‘throwing aside a drapery,” reveals the (nude?) Marchesa, “beaming all over with smiles” (my emphasis), in a pose identical to that of the Venus statue. The “curiously fashioned vase” (II, 164) is, then, a metonymic metaphor joining contiguity with similarity, a symbol of the pudenda that her left hand, mimicking that of the Venus de Medici, is covering. Like Poe, she points to what she is concealing — a misdirection meant of find direction out.

In the next paragraph, the stranger turns his attention to “a few goblets fantastically stained, together with two large Etruscan vases, fashioned in the same extraordinary model as that in the foreground of the portrait, and filled with what I supposed to be Johannisberger” wine (II, 165). He then swallows “several goblets” of the poisoned wine. The association of the “Etruscan vases” with the “curiously fashioned vase” of the Marchesa’s vagina makes the stranger’s self-poisoning the symbolic equivalent of sexual intercourse with her: [page 8:] At length, erecting his frame, he looked upwards, and ejaculated the lines of the Bishop of Chichester:

Stay for me there! I will not fail

To meet thee in that hollow vale.” (9)

The narrative introduction in this 1845 addition makes overt what Poe may have deemed too subtle a thread in the fabric of “The Assignation.” In the lines of verse, the meeting in death is clearly associated with the female sexual symbolism of “that hollow vale.“(10) Also clear, in retrospect, is the male sexual symbolism in the earlier quotation of “the vigorous words of Chapman’s Bussy D‘Ambois‘’ which ‘‘instinctively quivered” on the narrator’s lips when his “glance fell from the painting to the figure of my friend” (II, 164):

“He is up

There like a Roman statue! He will stand

Till Death hath made him marble!” (II, 165)

By changing the first-person pronouns in the first version of the tale to the third person in all the subsequent versions to doubly fit the new context, Poe makes his phallic joke very plain.” The sexual implications of “stand” are further reinforced when the stranger twice subsequently invites the narrator to “Come.“(12)

Clearly, the sexual act provides Poe with a descriptive analogy for the translation of the Marchesa and the stranger to an idealized realm beyond death. The “abyss” (II, 152) of the canal, into which, at the beginning of the story, the stranger had plunged to rescue the Marchesa’s drowning baby (begotten, presumably, when he had previously “plunged” into her), can now be seen as another aspect of this same analogy: The “abyss” and the “curiously fashioned vase” are both symbols of the Marchesa’s vagina. This reading is reinforced by yules Zanger’s argument for the sexual implication of the abyss image, partly on the basis of the whirlpool eyes in “Morella” and “Ligeia,” in “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom. “(13)

Similarly, Gary Scharnhorst has convincingly interpreted “MS. Found in a Bottle” as depicting the processes of fertilization, pregnancy, and birth.(14) The same microscopic scenario may be discerned in the first part of “The Assignation,” where it functions as the stranger’s allegorical demonstration of his ability to surmount death. The relationship between the Marchesa and the canal suggests a ruptured hymen: “as my [the narrator’s] gondola arrived opposite the mouth of the canal San Marco, a female voice from its recesses broke suddenly upon the night. . . .“(15) The child, dropped at a point where a large canal intersects with a smaller one, corresponds to the ovam. In the canal it meets with the sperm ejaculated from the “Once more . . . risen” “form” (II, 150) of the stranger. The presentation of the child is the equivalent of birth. Thus, the first part of “The Assignation” may be read as adumbrating what metaphorically transpires after the tale’s conclusion. As such, as is suggested by the multiplied mirror images which figure in both parts, [column 2:] the two parts are like opposing mirrors that endlessly reduplicate — or rather reproduce — the images contained. And thus is infinity achieved — or counterfeited.

To return to the question of the tale’s seriousness, if Poe’s approach is essentially humorous (at the expense of the stranger, the Marchesa, and perhaps the dull-witted reader?), then the sexual symbolism and innuendos must be comprehended under the category of comic bawdry. A comic reading, however, might well join a tragic one in concluding that the stranger’s pretension to have discovered a means of surmounting death is evidence of either his naive delusion or madness, the second controversial question in criticism on this text. To arguments for the tale’s basic seriousness and the stranger’s reliability and sanity, I would add all the indications in the tale that a process of alchemical transformation is under way. There can be no doubt concerning Poe’s knowledge of alchemy in light of “Von Kempelen and His Discovery.” And Barton Levi St. Armand has made convincing cases for Poe’s conscious use of alchemical symbolism in both “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Gold Bug.“(16)

In “The Assignation,” the description of the stranger’s arabesque room — the agential element (according to the stranger and, I believe, to Poe) in the business of translating oneself from the realm of mundane, grotesque reality (and, with its folded tapestries, conceivably also a further vagina or womb symbol) — recalls a process of alchemical conversion. The movement from night to day, “the tongues of emerald and violet fire,” the “crimson-tinted glass,” the curtains “like cataracts of molten silver,” and the “liquid-looking cloth of Chili gold“(17) suggest the colors associated with the seven stages of the alchemical process: black (for primal matter), white (for the first transmutation into quicksilver), green, yellow, red (for sulphurous passion), silver, and finally gold.(18)

At the tale’s end this alchemical sequence is recapitulated. The two vases and the goblets rest upon “a table of richly enamelled and massive silver . . . .“(19) Just before the stranger drinks, “a cherub with a heavy golden hammer made the apartment ring with the first hour after sunrise” (II, 165) — the tale begins in the evening and ends around dawn in accordance with Poe’s preference for median or fused states. The poisoned wine is a golden white. And there are references to “green,” ‘‘light” (part of a substitution made in the 1845 text), “sands,” “nightly dreams,” “dark eye,” and “silver” in the stranger’s poem (II, 162-63). But, the narrator finally focuses the reader’s attention upon the object that had contained the wine: “my hand [in parody of that of the Venus statue and that in the Marchesa’s portrait] fell upon a cracked and blackened goblet — and a consciousness of the entire and terrible truth flashed suddenly over my soul” (II, 166; my emphases). Here the alchemical and sexual [page 9:] elements combine. In spite of the metaphoric flash of fused white light, there seems, from the narrator’s point of view, to be no guarantee that the Marchesa’s adultery — the stranger’s fracturing and soiling of her chasity (together with their own self-destruction) — can effect the resurrection of the couple into a transcendent happiness. Certainly, the narrator remains in the bleak, everyday world, but the fate of the lovers remains uncertain.(20) The narrator does not divulge his “consciousness of the entire and terrible truth . . .” but leaves the reader suspended between a black and white antithesis, a grotesque reality and an arabesque unity.

The contest between the comic and the serious in “The Assignation” is clearly, in large part, a version of the contest between “natural” and “supernatural” readings of the tale. In Tzvetan Todorov’s scheme, “The Assignation” would qualify as an example of the pure fantastic. The reader, along perhaps with the narrator, experiences an unresolved hesitation between natural and supernatural explanations,(21) a hesitation built into Poe’s exploitation of the unstable relationship between the grotesque and arabesque. I have argued elsewhere that these terms can be viewed as both distinct and synonymous:

To see truly the deceptive nature of reality is to see simultaneously the actuality. In a sense, then, the arabesque concept subsumes the grotesque. To see human reality as grotesque is to intuit simultaneously intimations of an arabesque reality. An approximate analogy would be the kind of optical illusion that appears meaningless (an odd-angled photograph of some familiar object for example) until the moment of sudden recognition. There are here two apparently distinct experiences derived from a single object. . . . The state that is frequently invoked in Poe’s work and that might appropriately be called arabesque reality is a marginal one. It designates essentially what can be described, the ideal as perceived from mundane reality. And since the appreciation of one condition depends upon the appreciation of the other, the grotesque state is also marginal, the mundane as perceived from the projected ideal reality.(22)

Poe’s tales inevitably display a perceptible tendency in one direction or the other. In the case of “The Assignation,” I believe, that tendency favors the arabesque. But I would not exclude what may (momentarily or permanently) be assumed to be the mundane view of the narrator for whom the tale’s events may well appear tragic. From this perspective, the sexual imagery would seem only ironically humorous at best. Only from the embracing arabesque perspective of the stranger (and presumably of the Marchesa, and just possibly also the finally enlightened narrator) would both the genuinely bawdy, grotesque humor and the genuine arabesque seriousness of the sexual allusions be apparent. Which is to say that the ambiguous response elicited by the sexual imagery is microcosmic of the ultimately saving ambiguity of the tale as a whole — the sexual abyss a mise en abime.



1. - Note to “The Assignation” in Selected Writings of EdgarAllan Poe, ed. Edward H. Davidson (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1956), p. 500. For different views of the Byron connection, see Killis Campbell, [column 2:] “Poe’s Indebtedness to Byron,” Nation, 88 (11 March 1919), 248; Roy P. Basler, “Byronism in Poe’s ‘To One in Paradise,’ ” American Literature, 9 (1937),232-236; and T. O. Mabbott, ed., Selected Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Modern Library, 1951), notes pp. 415-416. It should be observed that two years before Davidson’s note on “The Assignation,” a case was made that “Ligeia” featured a secondary “allegorized jest” in addition to its “routine Gothic story.” See Clark Griffith, “Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and the English Romantics,” University of Toronto Quarterly (1954), rpt. in The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing, ed. Dennis W. Eddings (Port Washington, New York: Associated Faculty Press, Inc., 1983), pp. 1-17, quotations from pp. 16, 5.

2. - “Is Poe’s ‘The Assignation’ a Hoax?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1963), rpt. in The Naiad Voice, p. 18.

3. - G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony f n the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 126-130; Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “To ‘The Assignation’ from ‘The Visionary’ and Poe’s Decade of Revising,” Library Chronicle, 39 (1973), 89-105, and “To ‘The Assignation’ from ‘The Visionary’ (Part Two): The Revisions and Related Matters,” Library Chronicle, 40 (1976), 221-251.

4. - “To ‘The Assignation’ from ‘The Visionary’ (Part Two),” 221.

5. - For a stimulating interpretation of this Bloomian “anxiety of influence,” given the Derridian and Lacanian implications of the impossibility of “knowing” anything but a fictional Byron, see Pahl, “Recovering Byron: Poe’s ‘The Assignation,’ ” Criticism, 26 (1984), 211-229.

6. - David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 38-43, 183-185; see also Edward W. Pitcher, “Poe’s ‘The Assignation’: A Reconsideration,” Poe Studies, 13 (June 1980), 2. For my use of the terms “grotesque‘’ and “arabesque” as implying opposed states, see Rationale, pp. 35-38.

7. - Works, 11, 165. Characteristically, Mabbott reprints the text of “The Assignation” as it appears in the first volume of Rufus W. Griswold’s edition of the Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (1850). The only substantive difference between this text and the 1845 Broadway Journal is the 1850 restitution of “own” (the original 1834 choice) for “only” in “her own child” (II, 153). Every significant difference between the passages I quote from ‘‘The Assignation‘’ and the corresponding passages or contexts in all the earlier versions of the tale is indicated either in my text or in the notes.

8. - In the earliest version only, this additional sentence follows: “On a scroll which lay at her feet were these words — ‘I am waiting but for thee’ ” (Works, II, 164m).

9. - Works, II, 166; my single-word emphases. The lines of verse are from ‘‘The Exequy” on the death of his wife by Henry King (1592-1669), Bishop of Chichester. They appear in all but the first version as the tale’s epigraph.

10. - Fisher remarks, “For those ever eager to discover lubricious innuendo in any writer, these lines furnish all too easy a quarry. Fortunately, we have the statement of an established Poe expert, Edward H. Davidson, that our author’s tendencies were bent upon eliminating the overt bawdry of his earlier fiction. . . . What the insertion reveals is one more attempt of the feeble powers of humanity to bridge the gap separating the actual from the ideal world” (“To ‘The Assignation’ from ‘The Visionary’ [Part Two7s,” 242). For the evidence of Poe’s growing delicacy or subtlety, see Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 146-147.

11. - Bussy D‘Ambais, V, lv, 96-98, reads: “. . . I am up. / Here, like a Roman statue I will stand / Till death hath made me marble.” In the first version of the tale Poe quoted more accurately. [page 10:]

12. - Works, II, 165. The first quotation in A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary illustrating the sexual meaning of “come” (it is not noted in the OED) is dated not later than 1650.

13. - “Poe and the Theme of Forbidden Knowledge,” American Literature, 49 (January 1978), 533-543.

14. - “Another Night-Sea Journey: Poe’s ‘MS. Found in a Bottle.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction, 22 (Spring 1985), 203-208.

15. - Works, II, 151; my emphases. In the first version of the tale only, “burst” appears in the place of “broke” (II, 151q).

16. - “Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” Poe Studies, 5 (June 1972), 1-8; and “Poe’s Sober Mystification: The Uses of Alchemy in ‘The Gold Bug,’ ” Poe Studies, 4 (June 1971), 1-7.

17. - Works, II, 157-158. The “tongues of . . . fire” phrase is part of a clause which in 1845 replaced “which seemed actually endued with a monstrous vitality as their particoloured fires writhed up and down, and around about their extravagant proportions” (II, [column 2:] 157n . . . u). In the 1834 version only, the word “streams” stands in place of “cataracts” and the word “Chili” is omitted (II, [column 2:] 158u . . . u).

18. - The two articles by Barton Levi St. Armand cited above (note 16) provide considerable information about the symbolism of alchemy and various sources relating to alchemy that Poe was either familiar with or may have consulted.

19 - In the 1834 version only, this phrase reads “a table of massy silver” (II, 165a. . . a).

20. - Pitcher, pp. 1-4, makes a case for distinguishing the perception of the narrator, bound to a rational mundane world of surface appearances, from that of the visionary.

21. - The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973), p. 25 and passim.

22. - The Rationale of Deception in Poe, p. 37.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]