By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
.......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 mothernone other than the Marchesa Aphrodite, the most beautiful woman in Venice and wife of old Mentonistands 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 childstill aliveand 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 thou hast conqueredone hour after sunrisewe shall meetso let it be. 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 slight acquaintance. He is not a tall man, but he is classically handsomeafter 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 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.
.......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 a certain air of trepidation. 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 ottomanPolitian's tragic play Orfeoand notices an underlined passage blotted with fresh tears. 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
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 notationcrossed out but still visiblesays 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 incongruous to the timid alone, he says. At one time, he paid attention to custom and tradition in regard to interior decorbut 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! my mistress! Poisoned !poisoned ! Oh, beautifuloh, 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.
.......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.
Narrator: A man who tells the story of a love affair that ends tragically.
.......The Assignation 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.
.......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.
.......Poe wrote The Assignation in first-person point of view in the persona of an unidentified narrator who recounts and reacts to events he witnesses.
.......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 Poes 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.
.......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.
.......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
.......Poe marshals numerous literary devices to create and sustain the Gothic atmosphere of The Assignation. 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 the cold valley and shadow whose form
hath risen before me 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.
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!
.......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 The Assignation:No word spoke the deliverer. But the Marchesa! She will now receive her childshe will press it to her heartshe will cling to its little form, and smother it with her caresses. Alas! another's arms have taken it from the strangeranother'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 acta passage of the most heart-stirring excitementa passage which, although tainted with impurity, no man shall read without a thrill of novel emotionno 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.
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.
.......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 coupleJohn Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poes 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 The Raven 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.
.......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.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
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