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Edgar Allan Poe: The Sublime, the Picturesque, the Grotesque, and the Arabesque

Frederick L. Burwick
Amerikastudien / American Studies
Vol. 43, No. 3, The American Sublime (1998), pp. 423-436
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41157397
Page Count: 14
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Edgar Allan Poe: The Sublime, the Picturesque, the Grotesque, and the Arabesque
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Abstract

"The epithets 'Grotesque' and 'Arabesque,'" Poe wrote in the preface to his 1840 collection, "will be found to indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales here published." While the terms were certainly suggestive, they by no means had "sufficient precision" to still the quarrels of several generations of Poe's critics. In spite of several conscientious efforts to extrapolate Poe's intended definitions from the tales themselves, the terms remain disturbingly ambiguous and indeterminate in their meaning. What links the grotesque and the arabesque as aesthetic categories with the picturesque and the sublime is that, originally coming from the visual arts, they carry a rich visual heritage. This amalgamation of aesthetic categories is significant for the process of self-reflexion going on in literature and the arts during Romanticism. By discussing their means of expression across the borders of genres and media, new modes of expression are developed which allow art (and literature) to emancipate itself from panegyric, religious and moralistic functions and become an autonomous source of authentic experience and knowledge. In 1840, however, such a broad fusion of aesthetic categories also indicates a functional change; they convey a new idea of reality. Poe uses the arsenals of neo-classicism, pre-romanticism and romanticism to give expression to a concept of reality as a highly irrational, impenetrable, and mysterious force. His notion of a deep intertwining, if not struggle, of everyday life and the encompassing forces of nature, on the one hand, and the individual on the other, anticipates the deterministic world of the emerging realism and naturalism.

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