Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Visionary [The Assignation]” [Text-02], Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1834, 8:40-43


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[page 40:]

Original.

THE VISIONARY.

——

Ich habe gelebt, und geliebet. — Schiller’s Wallenstein.

I have lived, and I have loved.

 

Uud [[Und]] sterbich denn, so sterbich doch

Durch sie — durch sie. — Goethe.

 

And if I die, at least I die

With her — with her.

——

[column 1:]

THERE is a name — a sound — which, above all other music, vibrates upon my ear with a delicious, yet wild and solemn melody. Devoutly admired by the few who read, and by the very few who think, it is a name not as yet, indeed, blazoned in the escutcheon of immortality; but there, nevertheless, heralded in character of the Tyrian fire hereafter to be rendered legible by the breath of centuries.

It is a name, moreover, which for reasons intrinsically of no weight, yet in fact conclusive, I am determined to conceal. Nor will I, by a fictitious appellation, dishonour the memory of that great dead whose life was so little understood, and the received account of whose melancholy end is a tissue of malevolent blasphemies. I am not of that class of writers who, making some euphonous cognomen the key-stone to the arch of their narrations, can no more conclude without the one than the architect without the other.

Ill-fated and mysterious man! — bewildered in the brilliancy of thine own imagination, and fallen in the flames of thine own youth! Again in fancy I behold thee. Once more thy form hath risen before me — not, oh not as thou art — in the cold valley and shadow; but as thou should’st be — squandering away a life of magnificent meditation in that city of dim visions, thine own Venice, which is a star-beloved city of the sea, and the wide windows of whose Paladian palaces, gleaming with the fires of midnight revelry, look down with a sad and bitter meaning upon the secrets of her silent waters.

Yes! I repeat it — “as thou should’st be.” There are surely other worlds than this — other thoughts than the thoughts of the multitude — I would almost venture to say other speculations than the speculations of the sophist. Who, then, shall call thy conduct into question? — who blame thee for thy visionary hours — or declare those occupations a wasting away of life, which were but the overflowings of thine everlasting energies?    It was at Venice, beneath the covered archway there called the “Ponte di Sospiri,” that met me, for the third or fourth time, the person of whom I speak. It is, however, with a confused recollection, that I recall to mind the circumstances of that meeting — yet I remember — ah! how should I forget! the deep midnight — the Bridge of Sighs — the beauty of woman, and the Demon of Romance who stalked up and down the narrow canal.    It was a night of unusual gloom. The great clock of the piazza had sounded the fifth hour of the Italian evening. The square of the Campanile lay silent and deserted, and the lights in the old Ducal palace were dying fast away. I was returning home from the Piazetta, by way of the Grand Canal. But as my gondola arrived opposite the mouth of the canal San Marco, a female voice from its recesses burst suddenly upon the night in one wild, hysterical, and long-continued shriek.

Startled at the sound, I sprang upon my feet, while my gondolier, letting slip his oar, lost it, in the pitchy [column 2:] darkness beyond a chance of recovery, and we were left at the mercy of the current, which here sets from the greater into the smaller channel. Like some huge bird of sable plumage, we were drifting slowly 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 ghastly and supernatural day.    A 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. The quiet waters had closed placidly over their victim, and although my own gondola was the only one in sight, many a stout swimmer already in the stream, was seeking in vain upon the surface the treasure which, alas! was only to be found in the abyss.

Upon the broad black marble flag-stones at the entrance of the palace, and a few steps above the water, stood a figure which none who then saw, can ever since have forgotten. It was the Marchesa Bianca, “the adoration of all Venice — the gayest of the gay;” but, alas! the young wife of the old and intriguing Mentoni and the mother — the mother of that fair child; her first and only one — who now, deep beneath the water, was thinking in bitterness of heart upon her gentle caresses, and exhausting its little life in struggles to call upon her name.    She stood alone. Her small, bare, and silvery feet gleamed in the black mirror of marble beneath. Her hair partly loosened, for the night, from its ball-room array, clustered amid a shower of diamonds, round and round her classical head in curls like the young hyacinth. A snowy-white, and gauze-like drapery seemed to be nearly the sole covering to her delicate form; but the midsummer, and midnight air was hot, sullen, and still — and no motion — no shadow of motion in that statue-like form itself, stirred even the folds of that raiment of very vapour which hung around it as the heavy marble hangs around the weeping Niobe.

Her large lustrous eyes were not however bent downwards to the grave where her dearest hope lay buried; but riveted — ah! strange to say! in a widely-different direction. The prison of the city is, I think, the fairest building in all Venice; but how could that lady gaze so fixedly upon it, when her only child lay stifling at her feet? Yon dark, gloomy niche yawns right opposite her chamber-window — what then could there possibly be in its shadows — in its architecture, that the Marchesa di Mentoni had not wondered at a thousand times before? Nonsense! — Who does not remember that, at such a time as this, the eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees in a million far-off places, the woe which is close at hand?    Many steps above the Marchesa, and within the arch of the water-gate, stood, in full dress, the Satyr-like figure of Mentoni himself. He was occasionally occupied in thrumming a guitar, and seemed ennuied to the very death, as, at intervals, he gave directions for the recovery of his child. [page 41:]

Stupified, and bewildered, I had no power to move from the upright position I had assumed upon first hearing the shriek, and must have presented to the eyes of the agitated group a spectral and ominous appearance, as with my pale countenance and rigid limbs, I drifted down among them in that funeral gondola.    All efforts were in vain. Many of the most energetic in the search were relaxing their endeavours, and yielding to a gloomy sorrow. There seemed but little hope for the child — how much less then for the mother! But now, from the dark niche which has been before mentioned as forming part of the old Republican prison, and 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 height, plunged headlong into the canal. As in an instant afterwards he stood with the still living and breathing child within his grasp, upon the marble flag-stones by the side of the Marchesa — his cloak heavy with the water, became unfastened, and,falling in folds about his feet, discovered to the wonder-stricken spectators, the graceful person of a very young man, with whose name the greater part of Europe was then ringing.    No word spoke the stranger. But the Marchesa! She will now receive her child — she will press it to her heart. She will cling to its little form, and smother it with her caresses. — Alas! another’s arms have taken it away, and borne it afar-off unnoticed into the palace. And the Marchesa! a tear is gathering into her eyes — those eyes which like Pliny’s own Acanthus, are “soft and almost liquid.” Her lip — her beautiful lip trembles; the entire woman thrills throughout the soul, and the statue has started into life! The pallor of the marble countenance — the swelling of the marble bosom — the very purity of the marble feet, is suddenly flushed over with a tide of ungovernable crimson, and a slight shudder quivers about the entire frame, like a soft wind at Napoli, about the rich lilies in the grass.    Why should that lady blush? To this demand there is no answer, except that having left in the haste and terror of a mother’s heart, the privacy of her own bureau, she has neglected to enthral her feet in their tiny slippers, and utterly forgotten to throw over her Venetian shoulders that drapery which is their due. What other possible cause could there have been for her so blushing? — for the glance of those large appealing eyes? — for the unusual tumult of that throbbing bosom? — for the convulsive pressure of that trembling hand which fell, as Mentoni turned into the palace, accidentally, upon the hand of the stranger? — or for the low — the singularly low tone of those unmeaning words which the lady uttered, and departed? “Thou hast conquered,” she said, or the murmurs of the water deceived me — “thou hast conquered, one hour after sun-rise — let it be.”    The tumult had subsided — the lights had died away within the Piazzo, and the stranger whom I now recognized, stood alone upon the flags. He shook with inconceivable agitation, and his eye glanced around in search of a gondola. I could do no less than offer him the service of my own; in a hurried manner he accepted my civility. An oar was obtained at the water-gate, and as we passed together to his residence, he rapidly recovered his self-possession, and spoke of our former slight acquaintance in terms of great apparent cordiality.    There are some subjects upon which I take pleasure in being minute. The person of the stranger — let me call him by this title, who to all the world was still a stranger — the person of the stranger is one of these subjects. In height, he might have been below rather than above the medium size; although there were moments of intense passion when his frame actually expanded, and belied the assertion. The light, almost [column 2:] slender symmetry of his figure, promised more of that ready activity which he evinced at the Bridge of Sighs, than of that Herculean strength which he has been known to wield without an effort, upon occasions of more dangerous emergency. With the mouth and chin of a deity — a nose like those delicate creations of the mind to be found only in the medallions of the Hebrew, full eyes, whose shadows varied from pure hazel to intense and brilliant jet, and a profusion of glossy black hair, from which a forehead rather low than otherwise, gleamed forth, at intervals, all light and ivory. His were features than which I have seen none more classically regular, except perhaps the marble ones of the emperor Commodus.

Yet his countenance was nevertheless, one of those which all men have seen at some period of their lives, and have never afterwards seen again. It had no peculiar — I wish to be prefectly understood — no settled, predominant expression, to be fastened upon the memory; a countenance seen, and instantly forgotten — but forgotten with a vague, intense, and never-ceasing desire of recalling it to mind. Not that the spirit of each rapid passion failed, at any time to throw its own distinct image upon the mirror of that face; but that the mirror, mirror-like, retained no vestige of the passion when the passion had departed.    Upon parting from him on the night of our adventure, he solicited me in an urgent manner, to call upon him very early the next morning. Shortly after sun-rise, I found myself accordingly at his Palazzo, one of those huge piles of gloomy, yet fantastic grandeur which tower above the waters of the Grand Canal. I was shown up a broad winding stair-case of mosaics, into an apartment whose unparalleled splendour burst through the opening door with an actual glare, making me sick and dizzy with luxuriousness.    I knew my acquaintance to be wealthy. Report had spoken of his possessions in terms which I had even ventured to call terms of ridiculous exaggeration; but as I gazed about me, I could with difficulty bring myself to believe that the wealth of any subject in Europe could have supplied the far more than imperial magnificence which burned and blazed around.    Although as I say, the sun had risen, yet the room was still brilliantly lighted up, and I judged from this circumstance, as well as from an air of apparent exhaustion in the countenance of my friend, that he had not retired to bed during the whole of the preceding night.

In the architecture and embellishments of the chamber, the evident design was to dazzle and astound. Little attention had been paid to the decora of what is technically called “keeping,” or to the proprieties of nationality. The eye wandered from object to object, and rested upon none; neither the “Grotesques” of the Greek painters, nor the sculptures of the best Italian days, nor the huge carvings of untutored Egypt.

Rich draperies in every part of the room trembled to the vibration of low melancholy music, whose unseen origin undoubtedly lay in the recesses of the red coral trellice-work which tapestried the ceiling. The senses were oppressed by mingled and conflicting perfumes, reeking up from strange Arabesque censers which seemed actually endued with a monstrous vitality as their particoloured fires writhed up and down, and around about their extravagant proportions. The rays of the rising sun poured in upon the whole, through windows formed each of a single huge pane of crimson-tinted glass, and glancing to and fro in a thousand reflections from curtains which rolled from their cornices like streams of molten silver, mingled at length, fitfully with the artificial light, and lay weltering and subdued upon a carpet of rich, liquid-looking cloth of gold.

Here then had the hand of genius been at work. — A wilderness — a chaos of beauty was before me; a [page 42:] sense of dreamy and incoherent grandeur took possession of my soul, and I remained speechless.    “Ha! ha! ha!” laughed the proprietor, pointing me to a seat, and throwing himself back upon an ottoman. There was, I thought, a tincture of bitterness in the laugh, and I could not immediately reconcile myself to the bienseance of so singular a welcome

“Ha! ha! ha! — ha! ha! ha!” continued he. “I see you are surprised at my apartment — my statues — my pictures — my originality of conception in architecture — in upholstery; absolutely drunk with my magnificence! Ha! ha! ha! pardon me; my dear sir, pardon me — I must laugh or die — perhaps both,” continued he, after a pause. “Do you know, however,” said he, musingly, “that at Sparta, which is now Palaochori — at Sparta, I say — to the west of the citadel, among the scarce visible ruins, is a kind of socle, upon which are still visible the letters [[Greek text:]] ΛΑΣΜ [[:Greek text]]. They are, I verily believe, part of [[Greek text:]] ΓΕΛΑΣΜΑ [[:Greek text]]. How many divinities had altars at Sparta, and how strange that that of Laughter should be found alone surviving! But just now, to be sure, I have no right to be surprized at your astonishment. Europe — the world, cannot rival this my regal cabinet. My other apartments, however, are mere matters of fact — ultras of fashionable insipidity. This is better than fashion — is it not? Yet this has but to be seen, to become the rage; that is to say, with those who could afford it at the expense of their entire patrimony. But I have guarded against any such profanation, with one exception” — (here the pallor of death rapidly overspread his countenance, and as rapidly spread away) — “with one exception; you are the only human being, besides myself, who has ever set foot within its imperial precincts.”    I bowed in acknowledgment, for the unexpected eccentricity of his address and manner, had filled me with amazement, and I could not express in words my appreciation of what I might have construed into a compliment.    “Here,” said he, arising and leaning upon my arm, as he sauntered around the apartment — “here are paintings of all ages, from the Greek painters to Cimabue, and from Cimabue to the present hour. Many are chosen, as you see, with little deference to the opinions of Vertu. Here too, are some chefs-dœuvres of the unknown great — and there, unfinished designs by men celebrated in their day, whose very names the perspicacity of the Academies has left to silence, and to me. What think you,” said he, turning as he spoke — “what think you of this Madonna della Pieta?”    “It is Guido’s own,” I said, with all the enthusiasm of my nature; for I had been poring intently over its surpassing loveliness — “it is Guido’s own — how could you have obtained it? She is undoubtedly in painting what the Venus is in sculpture!”    “Ha!” said he, thoughtfully — “the Venus! — the beautiful Venus! — the Venus of Venuses! — the Venus de Medicis! — the work of Cleomenes, the son of the Athenian! as much as it is the work of mine own hands! — part of the left arm, and all the right, are restorations; and in the coquetry of that right arm lies, I think, the quintessence of affectation. The Apollo too! — you spoke of Apollo! — it is a copy; there can be no reasonable doubt of it. Sir, I will not bow to falsity, although begrimed with age — there is no inspiration in the boasted Apollo, and the Antinous is worth a dozen of it. After all, there is much in the saying of Socrates — ‘that the statuary found his statue in the block of marble.’ Michel Angelo was not original in his couplet —”

“Non ha l’ottimo artista aleun concetto

Chè un marmo solo in se non circunscriva.”

It has been, or should be remarked, that in the manner [column 2:] of the true gentleman, we are always aware of a difference from the bearing of the vulgar, without being able at once precisely to determine in what such difference consists. Allowing the remark to have applied in its full force to the outward demeanour of my friend, I felt it on that eventful morning, still more fully applicable to his moral temperament and character — nor could I better define that peculiarity of spirit which seemed to place him so essentially apart from all other human beings, than by calling it a habit of intense and continual thought, pervading even his most trivial actions, intruding upon his moments of dalliance, and interweaving itself into his very flashes of merriment, like adders which writhe from out the eyes of the grinning masks in the cornices around the temples of Cybele.

I could not help, however, repeatedly observing, through the mingled tone of levity and solemnity with which he rapidly descanted on matters of little importance, a certain air of trepidation — a nervous inquietude of manner, which appeared to me unaccountable, and at times even filled me with alarm. 

Frequently pausing in the middle of a sentence, whose commencement he had apparently forgotten, he seemed to be listening, in the deepest attention, as if either in expectation of a visiter, or to sounds which must have had existence in imagination alone.    It was during one of these apparent reveries, or pauses of abstraction that, in turning over a page of Politian’s beautiful tragedy, the “Orfeo,” which lay near me upon an Ottoman, I found a passage underlined in pencil. It is a passage near the conclusion of the third act — a passage of heart-stirring pathos — a passage which, divested of its impurity, no man could read without a thrill — no maiden without a sigh. The whole page was blotted with fresh tears, and upon the opposite interleaf were the following lines written, as I now write them, in English; but in a hand so very different from the peculiar and bold characters of my acquaintance, that I had difficulty in recognizing it as his own.

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

All wreathed round with wild flowers,

And all the flowers were mine!

 

But the dream — it could not last;

Young Hope! that did’st arise

But to be overcast!

A voice from out the Future cries

“Onward!” while o’er the Past,

Dim gulf! — my spirit hovering lies,

Mute — motionless — aghast!

 

For alas! — alas! — with me

Ambition — all — is o’er;

“No more — no more — no more” —

(Such language holds the solemn sea

To the sands upon the shore,)

Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,

Or the stricken eagle soar!

 

And all my hours are trances,

And all my nightly dreams

Are where the dark eye glances —

And where thy footstep gleams

In what ethereal dances,

By far Italian streams!

 

Alas! for that accursed time

They bore thee o’er the billow

From me — to titled age and crime,

And an unholy pillow — [page 43:]

From Love, and from our misty clime

Where weeps the silver willow!

That these lines were written in English, a language with which I had not believed their author acquainted, afforded me little matter for surprize. I was too well aware of the variety of his acquirements, as well as the strange pleasure he took in hiding them from the world, to be astonished at any similar discovery. But I must confess that the place of date of the M. S., appeared to me singular. It had been originally written “London,” and afterwards carefully overscored; although not so effectually as to conceal the word from a scrutinizing eye. I repeat that this appeared to me singular — for I well remembered having asked him if he had ever met with, some person — I think, the Marchesa di Mentoni, who resided in England some years before her marriage — if he had, at any time, met with her in London; and his answer led me to understand that he had never visited Great Britain. I must here add that I have more than once heard, but, of course, never gave credit to a report involving so much improbibility — that the person of whom I write, was not only by birth, but in education an Englishman.  

“There is one painting,” said he, turning to me with evident emotion, as I replaced the volume upon the Ottoman — “there is one painting which you have not seen,” and throwing aside a drapery, he discovered a full[[-]]length portrait of the Marchesa di Mentoni.

Human art could have done no more in the accurate delineation of her superhuman beauty. The same sylph-like figure which stood before me the preceding night, upon the steps of the Ducal palace, stood before me once again. But in the expression of her countenance, which was beaming all over with smiles, there still lurked that incomprehensible strain of melancholy which is, I do believe, inseparable from the perfection of the beautiful. On a scroll which lay at her feet were these words — “I am waiting but for thee.” Her right arm lay folded across her bosom, and with her left she pointed downwards to a curiously-fashioned vase. One small, fairy foot, alone visible, barely touched the earth — and, scarcely discernible in the brilliant atmosphere which seemed to encircle, and enshrine her loveliness, floated a pair of the most delicately-imagined silvery wings.

I glanced from the painting to the figure of my friend, and the powerful words of Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, quivered instinctively upon my lips —

——— I am up

Here like a Roman statue — I will stand

Till death hath made him marble!

“Come,” said he at length, approaching a table of massy silver, upon which were some beautifully dyed and enamelled goblets, together with two large Etruscan vases, filled with what I took to be Vin de Barac, and fashioned in the same extraordinary model as the vase in the foreground of the portrait.

“Come,” he said abruptly, “let us drink — it is early; but let us drink. It is indeed early,” he continued, as a cherub, with a heavy golden hammer, made the chamber ring with the first hour after sun-rise — “it is indeed early; but what matters it — let us drink. Let us pour out, like true Persians, an offering to that solemn sun which these lamps and censers are struggling to overpower.” Here having made me pledge him in a bumper, he swallowed in rapid succession several goblets of the wine.

“To dream,” continued he, resuming the tone of his desultory conversation, as he held up to the rich light of a censer one of the magnificent vases — “to dream has been the business of my life, and I have therefore decked out for myself, as you see, a Bower of Dreams. Here, in the heart of Venice, could I have erected a [column 2:] 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 stretching upon cloth 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 whirling delirium of this scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing.”

Thus saying, he confessed the power of the wine, and threw himself, at full length, upon a chaise-longue. A quick step was now heard upon the stair-case, and a loud knock at the door rapidly succeeded. I hurried to anticipate a second disturbance, when a page of the Marchesa di Mentoni burst into the room, and, in a voice choking with emotion, faltered out the incoherent words, “my mistress! — Bianca! — poison! — horrible! horrible!”

Bewildered, I flew to the sleeper, and endeavoured to arouse him to a sense of the startling intelligence; but his lips were livid — his form was rigid — his beautiful eyes were riveted in death.

I staggered back towards the table — my hand fell upon a cracked and blackened goblet, and a consciousness of the entire and terrible truth, flashed suddenly over my soul.


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Notes:

In later versions of this tale, Poe changed the name to “The Assignation.” In the present text, the contradictory spellings of “surprise” and “surprize” are both given.


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[S:1 - GLB, 1834] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Tales - The Visionary [The Assignation] [Text-02]