Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Domain of Arnheim

"The usual approach to Arnheim was by the river. The visitor left the city in the early morning. During the forenoon he passed between shores of a tranquil and domestic beauty, on which grazed innumerable sheep, their white fleeces spotting the vivid green of rolling meadows. By degrees the idea of cultivation subsided into that of merely pastoral care. This slowly became merged in a sense of retirement — this again in a consciousness of solitude. As ­the evening approached, the channel grew more narrow; the banks more and more precipitous; and these latter were clothed in richer, more profuse, and more sombre foliage. The water increased in transparency. The stream took a thousand turns, so that at no moment could its gleaming surface be seen for a greater distance than a furlong. [...]  The windings became more frequent and intricate, and seemed often as if returning in upon themselves, so that the voyager had long lost all idea of direction. He was, moreover, enwrapt in an exquisite sense of the strange. The thought of nature still remained, but her character seemed to have undergone modification; there was a weird symmetry, a thrilling uniformity, a wizard propriety in these her works. Not a dead branch — not a withered leaf — not a stray pebble — not a patch of the brown earth was anywhere visible. The crystal water welled up against the clean granite, or the unblemished moss, with a sharpness of outline that delighted while it bewildered the eye." - Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Domain of Arnheim', 1847
This uncannily perfect landscape is the work of the narrator's friend Ellison, now deceased, but a man who had been borne from cradle to grave by 'a gale of prosperity'.  Having inherited a fortune, he spent four years searching for a site that he could re-shape according to his aesthetic ideals.  Ellison believed it would be possible to unite the beautiful and the sublime, to combine vastness and definitiveness, to design 'a landscape whose united beauty, magnificence, and strangeness' would resemble 'the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God.'  There is something godlike in the way he controls the traveller's passage and manipulates their mood like a poet, passing from the georgic to the bucolic, before they enter the silent gorge as the sun begins to set.  The boat then emerges into a clear basin of water, its surface reflecting steep hills of flowers that resemble a 'cataract of rubies, sapphires, opals and golden onyxes, rolling silently out of the sky.'

At this point the visitor must descend into a light canoe of ivory and proceed alone, past wooded slopes that display 'not one token of the usual river débris' and through another winding channel until a gate of burnished gold is reached.  The story is nearly at an end and, this being Poe, one expects some kind of dark revelation, perhaps a sepulchral vision like  Böcklin's Isle of the DeadThe boat descends rapidly into a vast amphitheatre. 'There is a gush of entrancing melody; there is an oppressive sense of strange sweet odor; - there is a dream-like intermingling to the eye of tall slender Eastern trees - bosky shrubberies - flocks of golden and crimson birds - lily-fringed lakes - meadows of violets, tulips, poppies, hyacinths, and tuberoses - long intertangled lines of silver streamlets - and, upspringing confusedly from amid all, a mass of semi-Gothic, semi-Saracenic architecture, sustaining itself as if by miracle in mid-air, glittering in the red sunlight with a hundred oriels, minarets, and pinnacles; and seeming the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes.'

Poe wrote another story two year's later, 'Landor's Cottage: A Pendant to "The Domain of Arnheim"', in which a walker, travelling through 'one or two of the river counties of New York' comes upon another magical vista.  This vale, emerging from the mist, with its crystal clear lakelet, emerald grass and triple-stemmed tulip tree, is described in (rather laborious) detail, as is the house itself.  Eventually the reader is led inside and shown the interior decoration of Landor's cottage.  The simple furniture has 'evidently been designed by the same brain which planned 'the grounds': it is impossible to conceive anything more graceful.'  Hopes of meeting the designer of all this beauty are disappointed however, as the narrator ends abruptly at this point: 'it is not the purpose of this work to do more than give, in detail, a picture of Mr. Landor's residence - as I found it.'  To what extent the narrator has projected his own dream landscape onto the New York countryside remains unclear. 

'Landor's Cottage' and 'The Domain of Arnheim', along with Poe's essay about an ideal room, 'The Philosophy of Furniture', form the basis of a "study of the inner refuge" made by a character in Paul Auster's novel The Brooklyn Follies.  Taken together, he says, they comprise "a fully elaborated system of human longing."

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