The Use of the Arabesque in Edgar Allen Poe’s Short Stories “Ligeia “and “The Visionary“

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 26 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

0. Introduction

1. Arabesque
1.1. Grotesque
1.2. The Term Arabesque in Poe’s Literature
1.2.1. The Problem of Perception

2. Ligeia
2.1. The Story
2.2. The Arabesque Structure of “Ligeia”

3. The Visionary
3.1. The Story
3.2. The Arabesque Structure of “The Visionary”

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

0. Introduction

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

Shall be lifted -- nevermore!” (Poe 28)

These famous lines are from an often quoted poem by Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most famous American Authors of all time. He was a writer of all kinds of literary genre but well know for his mystery or detective stories. Who does not know “The Tell-Tale Heart” or was shocked by the horror in “The Fall of the House of Usher”? Poe was a magnificent writer of Gothic Novels and is still today a well-known and well referred author when it comes to horror or even science fiction. His stories and plays are often adopted for the theatre and also Hollywood is incapable of not portraying his well-known horror stories.

Next to his famous works Poe, like many authors of the 19th century, wrote arabesque stories. Although there is his known Collection of Arabesque and Grotesque Stories from 1840, it is unknown to many that he followed truly an oriental writing tradition and set footprints into this new genre like Johnson, Moore, Byron and others and developed the arabesque term to a new limit.

But the question is if these stories are really written in the oriental tradition. Many critics are unsure up to this day if Poe really wanted to write in the arabesque or grotesque tradition and if he was aware of the fact that these two terms are of different background and do not, like many people think, just refer to the same definition.

This term paper will focus on Poe’s use of the arabesque tradition in his stories “The Visionary” from 1834 and “Ligeia” from 1838. It is the aim to find out parallels between both stories regarding the oriental tradition.

Therefore I will first explain the term Arabesque because there are many versions of what an arabesque could be: a style of writing, the writing itself, a wall paper etc. Also I will focus on the term “grotesque” because this term is often, especially when used with reference to Poe’s literature, mixed up with the term `arabesque`.

And at last I will have a closer look on the use of the term arabesque in Poe’s stories because, as I said before, he wrote more tales of the grotesque and the arabesque than the two I am going to refer to.

Then I will start with the story of “Ligeia” by concentrating first on literary elements and later on the typical arabesque style. Although this story was published after “The Visionary” I will start with it because first of all it is better known to the reading public and second Poe made a lot of revisions of the “The Visionary”, it even was published as “The Assignation” after “Ligeia” in 1842.

My next step is the literary interpretation of “The Visionary” and also the focus on its arabesque elements.

As a summary I will focus on my encountered results and make a comparison of the two stories.

1. Arabesque

First of all, the term arabesque is a symbol for the oriental culture to most people. But behind this name there can be found certain definitions like ornaments, writing and even literature itself can be an arabesque. Like Kühnel said:

Unter Arabesken verstand man lange, und mancher versteht darunter wohl noch heute den gesamten Formenschatz des islamischen Orients, geometrische und vegetabile Bildungen, vielleicht sogar Ziertexte und belebte Motive. (3)

But to understand the full variety of the term Arabesque I will explain its developments to today’s definition. Alois Riegl was the first showing a development of the term and claimed an arabesque is a “Planzenrankenornament der saracenischen Kunst” (Ernst 27)

The development of the arabesque as an ornament with its typical characteristics started in the 12th century. But there is an obvious difference between the classical tendril and an arabesque which can be seen in the guidance of the tendril lines.

The arabesque ornaments are used in the Islamic art as decoration of all kind of objects. They can be found in small metallic art or even as decoration of buildings. Typically the variations of the motives are little and there is a lot of repetition of the ground pattern but because of the various settings of the ornaments the eye of the spectator can find a diversified picture, which unties the moving world of nature with the geometric abstraction (Ernst 27f).

The main ingredients of the ornament itself are the leaf and the stalk but it is never used with its organic bonds. The leaf can occur in various forms, the only substantial is that it should be connected to the stalk and not be isolated. The main claim for the stalk is that it should stick to the law of bifurcation and the continuity of procedure. The satisfying general impression is warranted through the fulfilment of two aesthetic postulates: “[…] des rhythmischen Wechsels der Bewegungen, […], und des Prinzips der Flächenfüllung.“ (Kühnel 6)

The Islamic tendril ornament was often fused with another pattern: the scripture. Still today

the Arabian scripture has a high standard in Islamic culture. Through the years it came to

the formation of calligraphers, who enjoyed a high reputation in their culture. The scripture

was seen as a kind of art which was used for book writing or as an ornament for sculptures

and buildings.

So Arabian writing not only offered a decorative character but also information, for

instance about the constructor of a building.

It was used as decor but also to get theattention of the spectator.

But there are differences while reading in an arabesque style: the writing can differ from the point of view from someone who is reading it. As Ernst pointed it out:

„Schriftornamente oder mit Schriftzeichen verquickte Arabeskenornamente (erlauben) mehrer Lesarten, je nach Perspektive und Kenntnisstand des Betrachters (können sie) Informationen übermitteln oder rein dekorativer Art sein […]“ (31)

The distance to the ornament can also lead to different perceptions. A so called “Wahrnehmungsproblem” (Ernst 31) is created, which I will analyse further on in detail in chapter 1.3. The viewer can either see certain reoccurring elements or a total blurry area. But even with full concentration towards single elements it is nearly impossible to identify the whole structure. The reason is that all lines do intermingle so it is hard to follow one line from its start to its ending point. Like Riegl already stated: “[…] für den naiven abendländischen Beschauer erscheint es oft so verwirrt und kompliciert, dass man daran verzweifeln möchte […]“ (Ernst 31f.)

There is a certain ambiguity in these oriental ornaments, which is a special feature of Islamic art. : it cannot be said which structure was the first and which was the second. The ornament is a combined structure of lines and areas which can only be seen together and not apart from each other. The whole structure of the “Gabelrankenornament” can be found in architecture, in music and in literature. (Ernst 32)

In architecture the pattern of the architectural bearing patterns and the decorative features are as well ambiguous and can be seen for instance in the well-know building The Alhambra.[1]

The arabesque feature in literature can be created by using certain stylistic patterns and their repetition to fulfil different possible reading solutions. Like Kühnel said:

“Auch in der arabischen Poesie […] sucht der Poet im Gleichklang von Ansatz und Ausgang

der Verse und im schwingenden Rhythmus der Worte[ …] vollendete Form zu geben.

Die komplizierten Metra, die Fülle der Anspielungen und kunstvollen Umstellungen,

der lexikalische Reichtum, der es gestattet, Dutzende, ja Hunderte von Benennungen für einen

und denselben Begriff zu gebrauchen, finden unverkennbar ihren Widerhall in der Liniensprache

der Arabeske.” (Kühnel 8f.)

1.1. Grotesque

Often the literature of Poe is identified as being grotesque. He even wrote the Tales of the Arabesque and the Grotesque in 1840. There is sometimes a misunderstanding in the meaning of the two words, they even intermingle in their definition but there are certain differences to be found. The definition of the grotesque is mostly merely satiric and comic, while arabesque means emotive and imaginative and also Gothic. (Thompson 105)

I want to name certain stylistic devices to categorise Poe’s stories of “Ligeia” and “The Visionary” in the Arabesque style although even Poe’s understanding of the definition of the two terms is not fully clarified.

The term grotesque was developed in the 15th century in dependence of the place this form of ornament was found first. Typical patterns for a grotesque ornament are that the lines between the different ornaments do not intermingle while the arabesque plays with this structure to trick the eye of the viewer. (Problem of perception, see chapter 1.2.1.)

“In 1853 John Ruskin defined the grotesque as the art of a disturbed imagination and declared it to be essential part of the Gothic.” (Thompson 105) Therefore many of Poe’s works are referred to be grotesque because of the disturbed imagination which you can find in “Ligeia” and “The Visionary” as well. Both protagonists seem to be out of their mind while imagine certain things happening which are (maybe) not there but this will be explained further on.

Animal- and humanlike pictures are main features of the grotesque but for the arabesque they only occur in exceptional cases because of religious reasons oriental artist preferred tendril- and leaf motives. A third difference can be found in the dimension of the ornament: while the arabesque is only two dimensional, a grotesque is always three dimensional. (Ernst 28f.)

During the time the grotesque and the arabesque ornaments became equal because many artists took patterns from the grotesque and intermingled them with the arabesque form. For example many artists didn’t like the fact that the grotesque ornaments didn’t cross their lines and they changed and crossed them. Sometimes the term arabesque refers to these changed grotesque ornaments although the oriental form still differs from the new made form.

In the twentieth century the word grotesque means, as Thompson defines it, “loosely, something ugly, distorted, unnatural, with connotations, in some contexts, of both ludicrous and the sinister.” (105), which is a huge difference to the oriental arabesque ornament, that is far away from being ugly, distorted or loosely and not even sinister in any kind of sense. But this consideration depends also only to the eye of the spectator.


[1] Das entscheidende Kennzeichen ist, daß die eigentliche bauliche Konstruktion vollständig hinter der dekorativen Ausstattung verschwindet, von ihr überwuchert wird, daß in Übersteigerung und Umkehrung baulicher Möglichkeiten die Dekoration selbst konstruktiv-tragende Funktionen übernimmt. (Ernst p.32)


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Arabesque Edgar Allen Poe’s Short Stories Visionary“



Title: The Use of the Arabesque in  Edgar Allen Poe’s Short Stories  “Ligeia “and “The Visionary“