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House of Usher
Pit and the Pendulum
Masque of Red Death
Premature Burial
Tomb of Ligeia
An Evening With Poe
The Mystery
Of Edgar Allan Poe
The Comedy of Terrors
The Raven
Poe: a Light
And Enlightening Look
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The Assignation
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site..|..Other Poe Study Guides
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Publication Date
Possible Source
Point of View
Opening
Themes
Poem Interpretation
Creating Atmosphere
Use of Repetition
Michelangelo Quotation
Vocabulary and Allusions
Biographical Information
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2009

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.......The 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.
.......Under 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:
.......St. 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?
.......On 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.
.......All 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. 
.......The 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. 
.......After 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~
.......The 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,
        For which my soul did pine~ez_mdash~
     A green isle in the sea, love,
        A fountain and a shrine. 
.......That 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.
.......When 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 
There like a Roman statue! He will stand 
Till Death hath made him marble! 
.......He 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. 
......."Let us pour out an offering to yon solemn sun," he says, filling the glasses to the brim.
.......He 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 no longer. 
......."Like 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."
.......After pausing, he recites lines by the Bishop of Chichester: "Stay for me there! I will not fail / To meet thee in that hollow vale." 
.......Then, 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!" 
.......The narrator attempts to rouse the young man but discovers that he is dead. In the next moment, the narrator understands what has happened.
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Setting
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.......The 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. 

Characters

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. 
Marchesa's Child: 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 the Canal
Person Who Receives the Rescued Child

Type of Work and Publication Date

.......~ez_ldquo~The 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 Broadway Journal in June 1845. 

Possible Source

.......It 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.

Point of View

.......Poe 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.
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The Opening

.......Poe 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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Themes

Star-Crossed Love

.......The 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

.......The young man and the marchesa are both unhappy even though he is vastly wealthy and she marries a wealthy nobleman. 

Poem Interpretation

.......The 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 reputation]
        And an unholy pillow !~ez_mdash~
     From me, and from our misty clime,
  Where weeps the silver willow!

Creating and Sustaining the Atmosphere

.......Poe 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. 
.......Throughout 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 sable-feathered 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.

She stood alone. Her small, bare, and silvery feet gleamed in the black 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 dark 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 canal. 

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 with luxuriousness. 

Ah, dream too bright to last!
   Ah, starry Hope, that didst arise
But to be overcast !
   A voice from out the Future cries,
"Onward!  "~ez_mdash~but o'er the Past
   (Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies,
Mute~ez_mdash~motionless~ez_mdash~aghast!
For alas!  alas!  with me
  The light of life is o'er.

.......Poe 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. 
.......The 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

.......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 the palace! 

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.

.......Repetition of consonant sounds (alliteration) also occurs frequently in Poe's writing to enhance its musicality. Here are examples from "The Assignation":
She stood alone. Her small, bare, and silvery feet gleamed in the black mirror of marble beneath her.
Michelangelo Quotation

.......In 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
Che un marmo solo in se non circunscriva.
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.

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Vocabulary and Allusions

.......Following is a glossary of allusions and difficult words in "The Assignation."

Aphrodite: Goddess 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.
Bussy 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 (1757-1822).
Chefs d'Oeuvre: French for masterpieces. 
Cimabue: Important Italian painter (AD 1240-1302).
Commodus: Emperor of Rome from AD 180 to 192.
doge: Chief magistrate. 
ducal: Pertaining 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. 
More, 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. 
ottoman: Lounge chair similar to a chaise longue (in English, chaise lounge).
Persepolis: Magnificent capital city of ancient Persia.
palazzo: Palace.
piazza: Public square usually bordered by buildings. 
piazetta: Small public square.
Pliny's acanthus: 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
Politian: Italian poet, playwright, and Renaissance scholar (1454-1494).
Ponti di Sospiri: Italian for Bridge of Sighs.
Rialto: Business district in Venice
Textor, Johann Ravisius: French humanist (1480-1524) and rector of the University of Paris.
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. 

Biographical Information

.......Edgar 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. 

Complete Free Texts

.......The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has posted the complete texts of the 1834 version of the story, entitled "The Visionary," and the 1845 revised version, entitled "The Assignation."  The latter is the final version. 

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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • 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?