Because it is meant to describe how artistic vision can be embodied, this piece is an excellent introduction to Poe's taste and to his aesthetic thought. Poe said that it was very important--it showed his "tastes and habits of thought. Ellison, his hero, is an inspired artist. The garden, Ellison's masterwork, is supremely beautiful, but such supernal beauty is not entirely "natural." Indeed, readers who think that Romantic aesthetics is simply a matter of "back to nature" will find "The Domain of Arnheim" surprising. Ellison's garden is downright artificial; in it one sees "scarcely a green leaf" and seems to see "rubies, sapphires, opals and golden onyxes" rolling out of the sky. Poe in fact actually uses the word "artificial." Earthly beauty as we normally find it reflects human mortality. Poe wants more than normalcy. Ellison's dreams of beauty are not tranquil or pastoral. Instead they are "fervid." They are akin to the visions, say, of the brilliant, terrified prisoner in "The Pit and the Pendulum." Ellison does not seek to restore the "original beauty of the country. The original beauty is never so great as that which may be introduced." A truly inspired artist alters nature to make it intimate the complex patterns of a seer's transcendent vision.
The result seems beautiful to the narrator, but his description of the beauty of Ellison's garden stresses complexity, strangeness, and even "funereal gloom." A key word is "arabesque." The term is important in Poe: he elaborates on it in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition" and uses it in many stories. He was familiar with theoretical writings about it, too; there are several discussions of Poe's knowledge of the Schlegels' use of "Arabesque" (Thompson 3, 4). A definition which relates arabesque design to philosophical implication is Malachi Martin's:
A central design extending in curved angular, straight patterns that in turn generate stars within circles, squares within stars, flowers and fruit and beads linked by fragile stems and stout columns and intertwining twigs that flow into Arabic lettering and double back to rejoin and repeat the central design. Color, rhythm and form tumble and twine in symmetries leading to the asymmetrical. Visual and tactile traceries taper into invisible tracks and then reappear in further traceries. Semicircles bud unexpectedly from the sides of squares. Curves interrupted by jagged points flow into empty spaces, to reappear beyond in aery ellipses as in epigrams of mystery.
Philosophically as well, "The Domain of Arnheim" is central. A good entry into Poe's thought is afforded by the passage at note 7, where Poe uses the word "materialism" in a sense not familiar to many modern readers. He had the idea that inspiration, creativity, and insight were the result ultimately of physical connections which unite the entire universe. In the second paragraph he said that Ellison was lucky to believe in "the instinctive philosophy." Human intuition was capable, in Poe's scheme, of establishing contact with the force that interconnects the world. Poe shared that idea with many Romantic