"...the world has never seen--and...unless through some series of accidents goading the noblest order of mind into distasteful exertion, the world will never see--that full extent of triumphant execution, in the richer domains of art, of which the human nature is absolutely capable."
"...from the violation of a few simple laws of humanity arises the wretchedness of mankind--that as a species we have in our possession the as yet unwrought elements of content--and that, even now, in the present darkness and madness of all thought on the great question of the social condition, it is not impossible that man, the individual, under certain unusual and highly fortuitous conditions, may be happy."
"Arnheim" (the word is German for "Home of the Eagle,") is one of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser-known stories. The critics have taken little notice of it, and when they do, it's generally interpreted in vague terms of death imagery, or--God save us!--as a treatise on gardening. This is a great pity, as I am convinced that, if more people understood the true meaning of the story, the world would be much the better for it. It is actually one of Poe's most profound and beautiful works, and one of the very few where we are given a glimpse into his true inner self.
On the surface, "The Domain of Arnheim" is a tale of a fantastically wealthy man the unnamed narrator calls only "Ellison," who desires to express "the true character, the august aims, the supreme majesty and dignity of the poetic sentiment." He achieves his goal through creating "Arnheim," a castle and landscape-garden of supreme loveliness. As Ellison says, man can't affect the "general condition of man," but must be "thrown back...upon self." The first half of the story is a discussion of Ellison's philosophies about man and nature, the second a detailed description of Arnheim itself.
The story is, in brief, Poe acting as our tour guide through the human mind and soul. The unprecedented beauty and serenity of Arnheim--the domain of the soaring eagle--is accessible to each individual who follows the path Poe blazes within the realm of imagination. He states that "in landscape arrangements alone is the physical nature susceptible of imagination." These landscapes, as we see them in nature, are all susceptible to improvement. Ellison explains that "there may be a class of beings, human once, but now invisible to humanity, to whom, from afar, our disorder may seem order--our unpicturesqueness picturesque; in a word, the earth-angels, for whose scrutiny more especially than our own, and for whose death-refined appreciation of the beautiful, may have been set in array by God the wide landscape-gardens of the hemispheres." Man, by improving the arrangements in nature, in a way that "shall convey the idea of care, or culture, or superintendence, on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity" can create "nature in the sense of the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God." Perfecting these landscapes in our eyes--thus being able to see them as the angels do--brings us closer to these higher beings.
Poe uses the physical description of Arnheim as an analogy for what human beings can do in their mind's eye. By creating a mental "domain," by using meditation to create an inner "landscape-garden," one grows closer to the world of the spirit. The visitor's lengthy journey to Arnheim in the story's closing paragraphs is a journey to the higher recesses of the mind. The traveler who reaches that destination has achieved a genuine meditation--found Nirvana. Upon departing for "the Paradise of Arnheim," the visitor is "bidden to be of good cheer--that the fates will take care of him" as he finds the true expression of the "poetic sentiment" among the seeming "phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes."