Poe's Landscape Tales and the "Picturesque" Tradition

Article excerpt

Between the years 1750 and 1800, popular enthusiasm for landscape art reached its peak in Britain. During these years, the "picturesque" began to emerge as a distinct aesthetic category (1) articulated by theorists such as William Hogarth, Humphrey Repton, William Gilpin, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, Richard Payne Knight, William Howitt, Uvedale Price, William Kent, and others. (2) Not until the 1840's however, did the "Picturesque moment" (3) arrive in America, and all too often this American "moment" is viewed outside the context of the British "picturesque" tradition which, by the 1840's, was at least a century old. Although the publication of two works by the American Andrew Jackson Downing--A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) and Cottage Residences (1842)--is generally considered to have stimulated American interest in landscape aesthetics, the fact remains that Downing drew many of his ideas from John Ruskin; (4) and Ruskin, in turn, wrote about aesthetic issues already much discussed by his predecessors, such as Hogarth, Gilpin, Payne Knight and Price. Indeed, not only Ruskin but numerous literary figures including (in America) Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allan Poe exhibit a marked interest in contemporary notions about landscape art. (5)

Several of Poe's works published throughout the 1840's demonstrate his familiarity with aesthetic controversies inspired by the "picturesque moment[s]" in both Britain and America. "The Landscape Garden" (1842) and its companion pieces, (6) "The Domain of Arnheim" (1846) and "Landor's Cottage" (1848), suggest Poe's knowledge of "picturesque" theories. Although critical commentaries on Poe's landscape works have often assumed Poe's ingenuous employment of "picturesque" and other conventions of the landscape tradition, the fact remains that the stories contain numerous ironic and parodic strains. Poe's landscape works reflect his now well-documented tendency to develop hoaxes and parodies which bedevil the credulous reader; (7) in these three tales, Poe exploits his knowledge of a popular aesthetic controversy to suggest that art may be a far more subversive activity than a merely academic art theorist or an unwary consumer of art might suppose.

Poe's knowledge of the "picturesque" tradition was apparently formed under a welter of influences, both first- and second-hand. An anonymous review (probably by Poe (8)) of Downing's Cottage Residences published in an April, 1845, issue of The Broadway Journal might indicate that Poe did not read Downing's work before 1845; however, a review by Poe in Graham's Magazine in 1841 did treat two landscape works by the Englishman William Howitt: The Rural Life of England (1838) and Visits to Remarkable Places (1841). (9) The former is a two-volume work which could have more than adequately acquainted Poe with the theories and practices of the "picturesque" in England. Howitt alludes repeatedly to the ideas of well-known aestheticians including Kent and Brown; and Howitt even ventures to comment on the use of landscape pictorialism in the writings of poets dating from the classical era. (10)

At the time of reviewing Howitt's books, Poe was very likely already familiar with aspects of the late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century landscape controversy generated in part by such figures as Repton, Brown, Payne Knight and Price. Moreover, Poe was to some extent acquainted with The Tour of a German Prince (published in English translation in 1842) by Prince Puckler-Muskau. (11) This book proffers a wealth of terminology and information concerning the "picturesque," and might possibly have introduced Poe to the ideas of Kent, Brown, Payne Knight and Repton, Finally, Poe's knowledge of the landscape debate was augmented by his reading in Blackwood's Magazine, which throughout the 1830's contained numerous articles on the subject by such authorities as Gilpin and Archibald Alison. …