Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
narrator imagines he sees a man now dead. He addresses this man, a man
of mystery and extraordinary imagination, saying that no one should have
called his conduct into question or blamed him for his visions.
the archway of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the narrator had met the
man several times, the last meeting taking place late one evening. Here
is the story of that night:
Mark's Square is quiet. The lights in the palace of the doge
are going out. As the narrator arrives at the square in a gondola via the
Grand Canal, he hears a hysterical shriek after a child falls from the
arms of its mother into the water from an upper window of a building. Moments
later, the mother~ez_mdash~none other than the Marchesa Aphrodite, the most beautiful
woman in Venice and wife of old Mentoni~ez_mdash~stands barefooted on the pavement
of marble flagstones while her only child struggles beneath the surface
of the water. She is wearing a sheer nightgown. Her hair, arrayed with
diamonds, is only half undone from the ball she attended earlier. Oddly,
she is not looking down to where her child entered the water but across
to the prison of the Old Republic, a stately building that she had no doubt
seen many times before. What is there now that could attract her attention
away from her child?
steps above the woman stands her husband, Mentoni, still dressed in evening
finery. He is strumming a guitar in an attitude of boredom while now and
then instructing others gathered at the scene on how to save his child.
efforts at rescue go awry. However, from a niche in the old prison, a cloaked
figure dives into the water, retrieves the child~ez_mdash~still alive~ez_mdash~and delivers
it to the mother, his cloak dripping water as it falls
to the pavement. Strangely, though, another person receives the child and
carries it inside. The narrator overhears the mother tell the rescuer,
a young man, that ~ez_ldquo~thou hast conquered~ez_mdash~one hour after sunrise~ez_mdash~we shall
meet~ez_mdash~so let it be.~ez_rdquo~ The statement puzzles the narrator.
excitement over, everyone leaves the scene except the rescuer and the narrator,
who now recognizes the young man from previous encounters. After the narrator
offers the hero a ride in his gondola, they go to the latter's residence.
There, the young man talks genially about their ~ez_ldquo~slight acquaintance.~ez_rdquo~
He is not a tall man, but he is classically handsome~ez_mdash~after the manner of
the countenance of the Roman emperor Commodus as
depicted in a sculpture. When their conversation ends, the young man presses
the narrator to return to his residence at dawn the next morning.
the narrator arrives at sunrise, he is struck by the abounding splendor
of the residence. He had heard that the young man was wealthy, but the
extravagance of the surroundings is beyond what he had imagined. The room
into which he is led overwhelms the eye with Greek paintings, Italian sculptures,
Egyptian carvings, luxurious draperies, tinted panes of glass, and carpets
embellished with Chile gold. Censers emit perfumes. The host's tired eyes
and the still-lit candles indicate he has been up all night. He laughs
at the the narrator's look of amazement at the magnificent hodgepodge of
artworks, then apologizes for doing so, saying that sometimes ~ez_ldquo~a man must
laugh or die. To die laughing, must be the most glorious of all deaths
. . . Sir Thomas More died laughing, you remember.
Also in the Absurdities of Ravisius Textor,
there is a long list of characters who came to the same magnificent end.~ez_rdquo~
young man takes him around the room, pointing out obscure as well as famous
works. All the while, he seems preoccupied with intense thinking.
Behind his geniality, the narrator says, is ~ez_ldquo~a certain air of trepidation.~ez_rdquo~
Oddly, the young man appears to be listening for something. During a moment
when he seems distracted, the narrator browses a book lying on an ottoman~ez_mdash~Politian's
tragic play Orfeo~ez_mdash~and notices an underlined passage ~ez_ldquo~blotted with
fresh tears.~ez_rdquo~ On the opposite page, an interleaf, appears a handwritten
poem, part of which says:
Thou wast that all to me, love,
the young man writes well in English does not surprise the narrator, for
the former has demonstrated that he is well educated. What does surprise
the narrator is that a notation~ez_mdash~crossed out but still visible~ez_mdash~says the
poem was written in London. In a conversation with the young man on another
occasion, the narrator had asked him whether he ever encountered the Marchesa
di Mentoni in London, where she lived before her marriage. He replied that
he had never visited London, a statement that the narrator found incredulous.
The narrator had been previously told that the young man was a native Englishman.
For which my soul did pine~ez_mdash~
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine.
the young man resumes his commentary on the works of art in the room, he
throws back a drapery and reveals a life-size portrait of Marchesa Aphrodite
that displays her extraordinary beauty. Though her image is smiling, the
narrator perceives melancholy in the countenance. After shifting his gaze
from the painting to the young man, the narrator recalls the words of George
Chapman's 1607 play, Bussy d'Ambois:
He is up
then takes his guest to a table inlaid with silver. Upon it are stained
goblets and two Etruscan vases modeled after one appearing in the portrait.
There like a Roman statue!
He will stand
Till Death hath made him
us pour out an offering to yon solemn sun," he says, filling the glasses
to the brim.
downs several goblets before resuming his conversation. Although the fantastic
decor of the room and the varying styles of artworks appear to make up
a mishmash, they are ~ez_ldquo~incongruous to the timid alone,~ez_rdquo~ he says. At one
time, he paid attention to custom and tradition in regard to interior decor~ez_mdash~but
these arabesque censers," he says, "my spirit is writhing in fire, and
the delirium of this scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that
land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing."
pausing, he recites lines by the Bishop of Chichester: "Stay for me there!
I will not fail / To meet thee in that hollow vale."
having had his fill of wine, he slumps into the ottoman. There is a knock
at the front door. A moment later, a messenger from the Mentoni residence
enters the room and announces, "My mistress!~ez_mdash~ my mistress!~ez_mdash~ Poisoned !~ez_mdash~poisoned
! Oh, beautiful~ez_mdash~oh, beautiful Aphrodite!"
narrator attempts to rouse the young man but discovers that he is dead.
In the next moment, the narrator understands what has happened.
narrator recounts events that take place in Venice, Italy, in the summer.
The action begins late one evening and ends about 6 a.m. the next day.
Narrator: A man who
tells the story of a love affair that ends tragically.
The Marchesa: Young
woman of extraordinary beauty who is married to an Italian nobleman much
older than she. She is in love with a young man who lives near her residence.
The Marchese Mentoni:
Husband of the marchesa. The narrator describes him as a "satyr-like figure"
who strums a guitar, appearing unconcerned, while he directs others to
rescue the child. In his poem, the young man describes the marchese as
a man of "titled age and crime."
The Young Man: Handsome,
wealthy, well-educated Englishman who loves the marchesa. He apparently
took up residence in Venice after his beloved moved to that city. He is
an acquaintance of the narrator.
Child of undisclosed gender and age whose father may be the young man.
Messenger: Page from
the Mentoni residence who informs the narrator of the marchesa's death.
Crowd of Onlookers at
Person Who Receives the
of Work and Publication Date
Assignation~ez_rdquo~ is a short story with Gothic
touches and a tragic ending. The story was published as "The Visionary"
in January 1834 in Louis A. Godey's monthly magazine, Lady's Book.
After Poe revised the story, it was published as "The Assignation" in the
Journal in June 1845.
is believed that Poe may have modeled the love affair of the young man
and the marchesa on one the English poet George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron)
had in Ravenna, Italy, with Contessa Teresa Gamba Guiccioli after Byron
(1788-1824) met her in Venice. She was a nineteen-year-old who was
married to a man about three times older than she.
wrote ~ez_ldquo~The Assignation~ez_rdquo~ in first-person point of view in the persona of
an unidentified narrator who recounts and reacts to events he witnesses.
captures the reader's attention at the very outset: A child has fallen
into the water; his mother, a uniquely beautiful woman, stands at the water's
edge while rescue efforts get under way. The French writer Charles Baudelaire
(1821-1867), author of the great poetic work Les Fleurs du Mal (The
Flowers of Evil), lauded Poe for his openings:
The opening passages of
Poe~ez_rsquo~s writings always have a drawing power without violence, like a whirlpool.
His solemn tone keeps the mind on the alert. We feel at the very outset
that something serious is afoot. Then slowly, little by little, a story
unfolds, the whole interest of which is founded on an imperceptible deviation
of intellect, on some bold hypothesis, on a risky dosage by nature in the
mixture of the faculties. The reader, as though in the grip of vertigo,
is impelled to follow the author in his inviting deductions.
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marchesa's marriage to Mentoni makes it impossible for her and the young
man to live together as man and wife. Consequently, they decide to commit
suicide in order to unite in death.
Money Cannot Buy Happiness
young man and the marchesa are both unhappy even though he is vastly wealthy
and she marries a wealthy nobleman.
poem written by the young man hints that custom or unfavorable circumstances
forced the young woman to marry a much older man, Marchese Mentoni, whom
she did not love. Although she received a title and access to his wealth
and social connections, she lacked the one thing that could make her happy:
the love of the man she left behind. Here is the passage in the poem that
supports this interpretation of events that took place prior to the opening
scene in the story:
Alas! for that accursed time
They bore thee o'er the billow, [They took you across the sea]
From Love to titled age and crime, [From the love you and I
shared to an unhappy marriage with an older man, a nobleman of dubious
And an unholy pillow !~ez_mdash~
From me, and from our misty clime,
Where weeps the silver willow!
and Sustaining the Atmosphere
marshals numerous literary devices to create and sustain the Gothic atmosphere
of ~ez_ldquo~The Assignation.~ez_rdquo~ For example, in the opening paragraph, his narrator
begins his account with a figure of speech known as apostrophe to address
the deceased young man as a resident of ~ez_ldquo~the cold valley and shadow~ez_rdquo~ whose
~ez_ldquo~form hath risen before me~ez_rdquo~ as it was in life. He then presents a metaphor
comparing Venice to Elysium (a place of happiness in the afterlife) to
elevate the setting to a seemingly ethereal clime. The narrator also uses
archaic words such as thou, thine, shouldst, and hath to
weight the opening with a biblical, otherworldly solemnity.
the story, darkness and light war with each other like devils and angels
loosed from the Beyond, further enhancing the ethereal atmosphere. Note,
for example, the imagery (highlighted in blue) in the following passages,
the last from the young man's poem:
Like some huge and
condor, we were slowly drifting down towards the Bridge of Sighs,
when a thousand flambeaux flashing
from the windows, and down the staircases of the Ducal Palace, turned all
at once that deep gloom into a livid
and preternatural day.
also plays tricks with sounds, as when "one wild, hysterical, and long
continued shriek" pierces the dead silence of the Campanile square, as
when old Mentoni strums his guitar after "the quiet waters had closed placidly
over their victim," and as when the young man discusses the glory of laughing
while dying. These contrasts add further eerie touches.
She stood alone. Her small,
bare, and silvery feet gleamed in the
mirror of marble beneath her. Her hair, not as yet more than
half loosened for the night from its
ball-room array, clustered, amid a shower of diamonds,
round and round her classical head, in curls like those of the young hyacinth.
A snowy-white and gauze-like drapery
seemed to be nearly the sole covering to her delicate form.
[F]rom the interior of that
niche which has been already mentioned as forming a part of
the Old Republican prison, and as fronting the lattice of the Marchesa,
a figure muffled
in a cloak, stepped out within reach of the light, and, pausing
a moment upon the verge of the giddy descent, plunged headlong into the
Upon leaving him on the
night of our adventure, he solicited me, in what I thought an
urgent manner, to call upon him very early the
next morning. Shortly after sunrise,
I found myself accordingly at his Palazzo, one of those huge structures
of gloomy, yet fantastic pomp, which
tower above the waters of the Grand Canal in the vicinity of the Rialto.
I was shown up a broad winding staircase of mosaics, into an apartment
whose unparalleled splendor burst through the
opening door with an actual glare, making me blind and dizzy
Ah, dream too
bright to last!
Hope, that didst arise
But to be overcast
A voice from
out the Future cries,
"Onward! "~ez_mdash~but o'er
gulf!) my spirit hovering lies,
For alas! alas!
light of life is o'er.
finishing touch is the motley decor and eclectic art collection in a room
of the young man's palatial residence. He deliberately designed the room
and selected the artworks to create a dreamlike atmosphere. He says,
To dream . . . has
been the business of my life. I have therefore framed for myself, as you
see, a bower of dreams. In the heart of Venice could I have erected a better
? You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.
The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes
of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold. Yet the effect is incongruous
to the timid alone. Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the
bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.
Once I was myself a decorist ; but that sublimation of folly has palled
upon my soul. All this is now the fitter for my purpose. Like these arabesque
censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this scene
is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither
I am now rapidly departing. Repetition
of a word, phrase, or clause to signal emphasis, achieve syntactic balance,
and impart rhythm occurs frequently in Poe's prose and poetry. Note the
repetition (highlighted in blue) in the following sentences from ~ez_ldquo~The Assignation~ez_rdquo~:
No word spoke the
deliverer. But the Marchesa! She will
now receive her child~ez_mdash~she will press
it to her heart~ez_mdash~she will cling to its
little form, and smother it with her caresses. Alas! another's
arms have taken it from the stranger~ez_mdash~another's
arms have taken it away, and borne it afar off, unnoticed, into
of consonant sounds (alliteration) also occurs frequently in Poe's writing
to enhance its musicality. Here are examples from "The Assignation":
It was a
passage towards the end of the third act~ez_mdash~a
passage of the most heart-stirring excitement~ez_mdash~a
passage which, although tainted with impurity, no man shall
read without a thrill of novel emotion~ez_mdash~no woman without a sigh.
alone. Her small, bare,
silvery feet gleamed in
the black mirror
of marble beneath
his discussion of art, the young man quotes the first two lines of a sonnet
written by Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), the great Italian Renaissance
sculptor, painter, architect, and poet:
Non ha l'ottimo
artista alcun concetto
Here is a loose translation
of these lines: Not even the greatest sculptor can conceive an idea
that a block of marble does not already contain.
Che un marmo solo in se
Vocabulary and Allusions
is a glossary of allusions and difficult words in "The Assignation."
of love in Greek mythology. Her Roman name was Venus.
Apollo: In Greek
mythology, the God of prophecy, music, poetry, and
medicine. His alternate name, Phoebus, means brightness, and he was thus
also considered the god of the sun. He was the son of Zeus, the king of
the gods. The Greeks highly revered Apollo and built many temples in his
honor. One such temple at Delphi was the site of a famous oracle, the Pythia,
who pronounced prophecies as the mouthpiece of Apollo.
bumper: cup or glass
filled to the brim.
d'Ambois: Title of a 1607 play by the English dramatist and poet George
Chapman (1559-1634) about the French nobleman Louis de Bussy d'Amboise.
(Note that the title of the play omits the e at the end of his name.)
campanile: Bell tower.
Canova: Italian sculptor
Chefs d'Oeuvre: French
Italian painter (AD 1240-1302).
Emperor of Rome from AD 180 to 192.
to a duke, a nobleman of high rank.
Elysium: In Greek
mythology, a paradise for worthy mortals after they died. Elysium is also
called the Elysian Fields and the Elysian Plain.
Guido: Guido Reni
(1575-1642), Italian painter. One of his greatest works was the Madonna
della Pietá, referred to by the young man.
Sir Thomas: English writer, thinker, schoIar, and statesman (1477-1535).
After he became chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, his opposition
to Henry's divorce from Catherine of Arragon and his subsequent refusal
to swear that the king's authority superseded the pope's led to his beheading
in 1535. On his way to the scaffold on London's Tower Hill, he was
reported to have said, "See me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift
for myself." More is a canonized saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Niobe: Tragic figure
in Greek mythology. Niobe had bragged to the goddess Leto that she had
six sons and six daughters. Leto had only two children, the god Apollo
and the goddess Artemis. Because of Niobe~ez_rsquo~s boastfulness, Apollo killed
her sons and Artemis killed her daughters. Zeus, the king of the gods,
turned her into a mass of stone on a mountain. The block of stone cried
tears ceaselessly as Niobe wept for her dead children.
Lounge chair similar to a chaise longue (in English, chaise lounge).
capital city of ancient Persia.
piazza: Public square
usually bordered by buildings.
piazetta: Small public
Reference to acanthus
mollis, a garden flower with long leaves so light, soft, and smooth
that they resemble a liquid. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger (AD 62-113)
mentions the flower in his work, Epistulae.
Italian poet, playwright, and Renaissance scholar (1454-1494).
Ponti di Sospiri:
Italian for Bridge of Sighs.
district in Venice
Johann Ravisius: French humanist (1480-1524) and rector of the University
Venus of the Medici:
Reference to an ancient sculpture of Venus, the goddess of love. The Medici
Venus, on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is a marble copy (first
century BC) of an earlier Greek bronze statue.
Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned
at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple~ez_ndash~John Allan,
a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed
to be Poe~ez_rsquo~s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans
and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to
the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University
of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies
at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose
writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several
magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper
in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror
published his poem ~ez_ldquo~The Raven~ez_rdquo~ in January 1845, Poe achieved national and
international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story,
Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He
also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received,
he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths
of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently
had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a
contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has posted the complete texts of the
version of the story, entitled "The Visionary," and the 1845
revised version, entitled "The Assignation." The latter is the
Study Questions and Essay
The narrator reports that the
marchesa's ~ez_ldquo~child, slipping from the arms of its own mother, had fallen
from an upper window of the lofty structure into the deep and dim canal.~ez_rdquo~
He also notes that the young man is standing in the shadows of the Old
Prison while the rescue efforts are under way. In your opinion, does the
marchesa accidentally drop the child while standing at the window
to look for and signal to the young man? Or does she deliberately drops
the child to give the young man an opportunity to rescue it and meet with
her face to face.
After the child falls into the
canal, the narrator observes that ~ez_ldquo~the mid-summer and midnight air was
hot, sullen, and still. . . .~ez_rdquo~ If the air is hot, why is the young man
wearing a cloak?
In your opinion, why doesn't
the narrator report the gender of the child?
Why didn't the young man and
the young woman devise a scheme to run off together?
In submitting to her despair
and committing suicide, the marchesa abandons her child. Should she be
pitied, admired, or condemned?