Text: David K. Jeffrey, “The Johnsonian Influence: Rasselas and Poe’s ‘The Domain of Arnheim’,” Poe Newsletter­, December 1970, vol. III, no. 2, 3:26-29


[page 26, column 2:]

The Johnsonian Influence:
Rasselas and Poe’s “The Domain of Arnheim”

Auburn University

That Edgar Allan Poe was familiar with at least some of the works of Samuel Johnson has never been doubted. Poe attacks him in the prefatory letter to the Poems of 1831: “. . . . think of poetry, and then think of — Dr. Samuel Johnson! . . . . Think of all that is . . . . hideous and unwieldy; think of his huge bulk, the Elephant! and then — and then think of the Tempest — the Midsummer Night’s Dream — Prospero — Oberon — and Titania!” (1). Poe later chides Johnson for failing to follow the Plan of the Dictionary (2) and quotes him in a letter of 1849, where Poe declines to explain “Ulalume” to Susan V. C. Ingram: “I would endeavor to explain to you what I really meant — or what I really fancied I meant by the poem, if it were not that I remember Dr. Johnson’s bitter and rather just remarks about the folly of explaining what, if worth explanation, should explain itself. He has a happy witticism, too, about some book which he calls ‘as obscure as an explanatory note ’ “ (3). But Poe owes Johnson a deeper debt, one that has gone hitherto unnoticed. Poe used the early chapters of Johnson’s fable, Rasselas, in his story “The Domain of Arnheim,” and it will be the burden of this essay to point out such a parallel, to suggest from [page 27:] it the meaning of the journey motif in both stories, and to contrast briefly the aesthetic theories which appear in both works (4).

In “The Domain of Arnheim” Poe combines an explication of his aesthetic theory and a physical description of a landscape-garden, Arnheim. The builder of Arnheim, Ellison, is described by a narrator as a fabulously wealthy man, interested “instinctively . . . . in the creation of novel forms of Beauty” (5). He is interested in shaping nature, in molding it into a “purely physical loveliness” (VI, 181). The narrator believes that, although nature exceeds art in creating more beautiful forms and colors, it fails in combining these forms and colors: “no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce,” he writes (VI, 182). Ellison, however, disagrees. He tells the narrator that nature’s combinations fail only when regarded from a human point of view. He believes that any alteration of the apparent flaws in the picture of a natural scene would themselves be regarded as flaws when viewed from “some point distant from the earth’s surface” (VI, 184). Ellison suggests that God created the earth as a landscape-garden, an art work, to be viewed by both the angels and unfallen man. But the earth itself “fell” when man did; it remains fallen because man has tried to order its elements rationally, to bring a mortal kind of order to it, and in attempting to shape nature’s elements, man has moved even farther from its original divine order.

Ellison believes, nonetheless, that it might be possible for a human of a very special stamp so to order nature that the result would not be an affront to either an aesthetic ideal or to God. “The true poet,” he suggests, might be able to fashion a garden which retains the idea of art without the “harshness and technicality of the worldly art “ (VI, 187) . In natural scenes which are primitive and unaltered, Ellison has found “the art of a Creator” (VI, 187), and it is this kind of art, spiritual art, that Ellison wants to incorporate into his garden. Only “the true poet,” the visionary man, is capable of creating this ideal, Ellison believes, because only such a man has the insight, necessarily intuitive, into the harmony of what Ellison calls “the Almighty Design” (VI, 187). Ellison sees the poet as an intermediary between God and man, with knowledge of the aesthetic ideas of both. He rejects “the natural style of gardening” as a style in which to build Arnheim, because of its negativity; it focuses on eliminating defects, rather than on creating miracles (VI, 185). He accepts “the artificial style,” on the other hand, because it incorporates “pure” art in maneuvering nature and thus adds to its beauty. This kind of ordering, he believes, is also a “moral” act, because it evidences “care and human interest” in a divine creation (VI, 186).

The earth, in other words, is conceived as a work of art, a work created by a Divine Being for the scrutiny of His creatures, the angels. Thus, nature must be appreciated aesthetically; among mortals, only intuitive thinkers, true poets, can thus appreciate it. At the same time, it is only these men who have the capacity to create works of art which are not flawed by mortal design, rational order. These men bring to their art an intuitive knowledge of immortal design, the art of the Almighty, and [column 2:] incorporate it into their works. They are God-like, because they have insight into the design of His work and the ability to recreate it. For this reason Ellison is able to recreate the Garden of Eden when he builds Arnheim.

After Ellison’s theory has been explained, reference to him is mopped, and the narrator describes the result of that theory, the garden and palace of Arnheim. The “usual approach” to it, he explains, is by a river voyage begun in the early morning. The scenery during the first part of the journey is progressively “tranquil,” “domestic,” and “pastoral,” until at last the atmosphere is one of “retirement” and “solitude” (VI, 190). As evening nears, the river channel winds about almost circularly and becomes gorge-like. The walls on either side rise from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet and seem to converge at the top, shutting out the daylight. The moss which hangs from the shrubbery gives “the whole chasm an air of funereal gloom” (VI, 191). At a sharp turn of the channel the boat is brought, “as if dropped from heaven” (VI, 192), into a lake surrounded by hills. Here the voyager “descends into a light canoe of ivory, stained with Arabesque devices in vivid scarlet.” Shaped like a crescent moon, the canoe points itself toward the setting sun and with “gradually accelerated velocity” (VI, 193) moves through another channel, enclosed on the right by a range of hills. On the left is a plateau of velvety grass backed by a sheer wall, cut from the rock. In this wall is set a huge gate of carved gold, which apparently blocks the channel; but its “ponderous wings are slowly and musically expanded” (VI, 195), and the canoe descends into an amphitheatre surrounded by mountains:

Meantime the whole Paradise of Arnheim bursts upon the view. 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 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. (VI, 195-196)

The imagery of Poe’s description suggests that the voyage toward Arnheim is both a voyage toward death and a return to the womb. Poe uses standard symbols to suggest the first meaning — the voyage occupies a full day; Arnheim is revealed at evening by the light of the setting sun — and makes these symbols more explicit by giving the channel an atmosphere of “funereal gloom.” The gate suggests the doors of any of Poe’s tombs, and the music of their expansion is like that which Poe calls “the music of the spheres” which serves as the prelude to the death of Man in Ligeia’s poem, “The Conqueror Worm” (II, 256-257). Furthermore, for Poe death is virtually a specific point in time and space, and his emblem for it is the spiral or cone. He writes in Eureka, his cosmological work, that the universe began in a center with God, or Unity (XVI, 346). At His volition, a process of His own disintegration took place, and He began irradiating outward in increasingly wider elliptical circles, creating man and matter. Eventually, there will be a sudden loss [page 28:] of men’s individuation, and the pieces which are men will again become One as they fall back into Unity, which is God. This re-unification will be Nothingness, because it will mean the annihilation of life as man now knows it; all matter will be destroyed in the process of re-unification. The view of Arnheim, suspended in the center of a physically conical “amphitheatre,” is, thus, a vision of this Unity and Nothingness which is death and God.

But the gorge-like channel through which the river flows is a narrow, winding umbilical cord, which returns the voyager to the “circular basin” of his mother’s womb. Poe has his little joke with imagery when he explains that the boat descends into this basin-womb, “as if dropped from heaven.” Here the voyager is in tranquil harmony with his environment. His boat floats on a transparent lake, which is surrounded by hills, treeless and shrubless, covered in flower blossoms. He is in a “sea of odorous and fluctuating color” (VI, 192). His impressions are of “richness, warmth, color, quietude, uniformity, softness, delicacy, daintiness . . . . that suggested a new race of fairies . . . .” (VI, 192). This return to foetal existence, like the voyage toward death, is also a return to the time when man was united with God, as Poe makes clear in Eureka. For in Poe’s scheme, the birth and growth of an individual man are analogous to the creation of mankind by God. During his youth, Poe writes, man has “dim, but ever present Memories of his prior existence with or in God, memories which are shattered as he ages by ‘World-Reason ’” (XVI, 312). Like mankind, spinning farther from God, the individual also moves farther from Him because of his reason. But the intuitive thinker struggles to retain these memories throughout his life, as Ellison does by building a symbol with which to call these memories back into his consciousness and to force them into the voyager’s consciousness. Ellison’s palace, “sustaining itself by miracle in mid-air,” is much like Coleridge’s “stately pleasure dome,” the creation of the “true poet” which Poe introduces in the theory which precedes the description of Arnheim; there such art is described as “the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God” (VI, 188). Ellison’s “handiwork” is hovering right in their midst, both the result of and the reward for his intuitive insight.

Poe’s stress on the importance of intuition clearly contrasts with Johnson’s stress on empirical reasoning, and Poe’s story would probably have seemed to Johnson an example of “The Dangerous Prevalence of the Imagination” (6). It thus seems strange that Poe, who knew of Johnson’s stress on the importance of reason, as the prefatory letter to Poe’s Poems of 1831 indicates, should have drawn his description of Arnheim from the first chapter of Rasselas, the “Description of a Palace in a Valley.” Yet this is what Poe did. The “happy valley” (Johnson 12) in which Rasselas lives with other princes of Abissinia is in “the kingdom of Amhara, surrounded on every side by mountains, of which the summits overhang the middle part” (Johnson 8). Amhara is a pastoral paradise; trees, spices, fruits, and herbivorous animals cover its mountainsides, and brooks fall from the mountain and form “a lake in the middle” of the valley (Johnson 8). The single entrance to this paradise is through a cavern, whose mouth is hidden by a forest on the outside and sealed on the inside [column 2:] by “gates of iron, forged by the artificers of ancient days, so messy that no man could, without the help of engines, open or shut them” (Johnson 8). When the emperor of Abissinia, Rasselas ’ father, makes his annual visit, these gates are “opened to the sound of musick” (Johnson 10). The valley’s palace — centuries old, its roofs arches of stone, replete with secret passages — stands “on an eminence raised about thirty paces above the surface of the lake” (Johnson 10) .

Geographically, Amhara and Arnheim are almost identical. Both are fertile valleys surrounded by mountains; to enter both it is necessary to pass through massive gates, gates which open to a musical accompaniment. Both valleys have lakes in their midst, and the castles in each valley, architecturally similar, are both built above thffe lakes. An interesting difference, indicative of their contrasting aesthetic theories, as we shall see shortly, is Poe’s exclusion of Johnson’s explanatory parentheses about the “engines” required to open the gates and the “eminence” on which the palace stands; Arnheim’s gates open magically, and it “hovers” above the lake.

If Amhara and Arnheim are similar physically, they are also similar in meaning; both are associated with death. Poe uses stock symbology to suggest this in his story; Johnson is more literal in revealing the kind of death he wishes Amhara to represent. Johnson labels the “happy valley” a place of “seclusion” and “retirement” (Johnson 10) — two of the attributes Poe borrows. But for Johnson these are merely other ways of saying, as he finally does, that residence in the valley is “imprisonment” (Johnson 10). For the first fifteen chapters of the fable, Rasselas seeks a means of escape from his prison; he wishes to break free in order to make what he calls a “choice of life” (Johnson 64). Figuratively, his choice is not simply one of occupation, but is one of life itself, as opposed to the sterility he sees all around him in Amhara. Rasselas does escape from the valley and begins his search for someone on whom to model his life, but he returns to his homeland at the conclusion of ehe fable. His return, like the voyage to Arnheim, is in this sense a journey toward death, but the death to which he returns is much less figurative than that from which he fled.

For Johnson’s sense of death in the later chapters is increasingly more literal and more Christian, much more Christian than Poe’s; it is also unrelieved by the kind of optimism Poe expresses about it. The thought of death filled Johnson with terror and despair, and he struggled with this fear all of his life, as his Prayers and Meditations and Boswell’s Life testify. Despite his fear, Johnson believed death the most essential fact of human existence, and he believed that only in rational contemplation of it could man prepare himself for eternity; only in contemplation of it was man facing the truth of his existence. Thus, Rasselas ’ flight from the “happy valley,” his choice of what he believes is “life,” can be seen as a flight from recognition of his own mortality, an avoidance of the preparation for eternity. Rasselas, of course, does not see his “escape” that way, but he is, until the end of the fable, naive and self-deluded. Only near the conclusion, after he has visited the catacombs and gained there a sense of his own mortality and of a Supreme Being (Johnson 218), does he gain some sense of his responsibility to his soul. [page 29:] Having gained that sense, he decides to return to his homeland, and his decision is linked with what his sister calls a “choice of eternity” (Johnson 219). Rasselas, in short, must return and face the death that Ambara means to him, if he is to prepare himself for eternity. So too, as we have seen, Arnheim is a symbol for the voyager through which he can gain insight into the nature of death and God. The function of both valleys, then, is the same. By returning to his homeland, Rasselas makes the rational choice required by life; he decides to face up to his own mortality, which Ambara represents. Just as the journey to Arnheim is meant to impress on the voyager both the fact and the meaning of death, in the journey from and return to his homeland the voyager, Rasselas, acquires knowledge of that fact and its meaning.

Johnson’s description of the valley in his first chapter is followed closely by his aesthetic theory, which he presents in Chapters VI and X, the “dissertations” on flying and on poetry. The very fact that Johnson’s theory follows his description suggests an important difference between his theory and Poe’s. Arnheim, of course, is the result of the Poe character’s theory; Poe’s “true poet” is able to create a paradise because he practices that theory. For Johnson the poet merely describes Nature; he does not create it. The causal relationship between man and Nature is reversed in the two works the Johnsonian poet, Rasselas ’ friend and mentor Imlac, is there because the valley exists; in Poe’s story the valley exists because the “true poet,” Ellison, was there. For Johnson the function of the poet is to teach, and, while Poe denies such a function, his use of the narrator in “The Domain of Arnheim” suggests his own didacticism. Poe’s narrator tells the story of his voyage for the same reason that Ellison builds Arnheim — to give the voyager a glimpse into the nature of God and death. Like Poe’s poet, the narrator is also “the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind,” to apply to him Johnson’s description (Johnson 51). Johnson argues further that the poet must write “as a being superiour to time and place” (Johnson 51), meaning that the poet must disregard particulars and rise to universals, “must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths” (Johnson 50-51). Poe takes this quite literally, placing the poet and his creation amidst the angels.

Johnson clearly rejects the causal theory of art and the view of the poet it entails, the view that Poe embraces, in his sixth chapter, the “Dissertation on the Art of Flying.” In that chapter Rasselas, seeking escape from the valley, goes to an “artist,” a man “eminent for his knowledge of the mechanick powers” (Johnson 27), who proposes that Rasselas fly out of the valley on a pair of wings the “artist” will design and build for him. Rasselas answers that the man’s “imagination prevails over his skill” (Johnson 29). The “artist,” however, convinces Rasselas, builds the wings, jumps from a promontory, and plunges instantly into the lake (Johnson 32-33). Through the “artist’s” statements that “only ignorance and idleness need crawl upon the ground” (Johnson 28) and that trade, war, and peace would equally “amuse” a man equipped with wings (Johnson 30), Johnson emphasizes such an “artist’s” sinful presumptuousness (7). The “artist” overrides Rasselas ’ practical objection [column 2:] that “no man will be able to breathe in these regions of speculation and tranquillity” (Johnson 31), but he does not answer it. He apparently believes that his “art” raises man not only above others quite literally, but also raises him figuratively — above his own humanity. The power of such an “artist,” a “true poet,” to use Poe’s term would enable him to “hover,” like Arnheim, “between man and God.” But this theory leads in Rasselas only to a cold bath in the lake, a clear and humorous rejection of the theory. Johnson does not only reject the theory; he labels it insane. It is no accident that he applies Rasselas ’ description of the “artist” to the “mad astronomer” of Chapters XL-XLVI, whose imagination is also dangerously prevalent over his reason and who, therefore, believes that he controls the world’s climate. In his case, as in the case of the first “artist,” this dominance of the imagination evidences for Johnson the sin of pride.

These differences in theory make Poe’s use of Rasselas all the more intriguing. That he meant his aesthetic theory to oppose the view Johnson expressed in later chapters is a possibility; that the difference between those theories suggests differences between the ages of sensibility and romanticism, the mirror and the lamp, is obvious. What is surprising is the fact that Poe borrowed Johnson’s “happy valley” at all and that the meaning of this valley, the meaning and the use of death, is so similar in both works.



(1)  Edgar Allan Poe, “Letter to B .,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York, 1902), VII, xliii.

(2)  Review of Charles Richardson’s A New Dictionary of the English Language for the Southern Literary Messenger of August, 1836; quoted in Works, IX, 104-105.

(3)  John Ward Ostrom, ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), II, 460.

(4)  For Johnson’s sources (with which Poe was unfamiliar, as far as I am able to tell) see Donald M. Lockhart, “ ’The Fourth Son of the Mighty Emperor ’: The Ethiopian Background of Johnson’s Rasselas, ” PMLA, LXXVIII (1963), 516-528.

(5)  Poe, “The Domain of Arnheim,” Works, VI, 180. Subsequent references to Poe’s works will be cited by volume and page in my text.

(6)  Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford, 1927), p. 189. Subsequent references will be cited by page number in the text.

(7)  Arieh Sachs, Passionate Intelligence (Baltimore, 1967), pp. 25-27, discusses the chapter interestingly and makes this point, among others. 


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1970]