Supernaturalism in the Romantic Poets - Interregnum - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Supernaturalism in the Romantic Poets
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The novel was not the only literary mode in which the Gothic operated. Both during the Gothic period itself and in what I call the “interregnum”—that period of the 1810s and 1820s prior to the emergence (in the United States) of Edgar Allan Poe—a number of writers found horrific inspiration in poetry and the short story. This utilisation of short forms for the exhibition of weirdness appears to have been due both to aesthetic disenchantment with the plodding verbosity of most of the Gothic novels and to such market factors as the establishment of quarterly or monthly periodicals that welcomed poems and tales rather than novels. In any event, some striking literature was generated, fostering a certain broadening of supernatural themes and motifs. At the same time, several post-Gothic writers in England, Europe, and the United States sought to build upon the work of their predecessors and to employ the supernatural as a catalyst for a wider array of moral, social, and even political messages.

Supernaturalism in the Romantic Poets

One of the most striking phenomena of the Gothic period was the extent to which both German and British writers expressed weird conceptions in poetry. We have seen that supernatural verse prior to The Castle of Otranto was sparse and insignificant; but, perhaps in part as a result of the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), supernatural poetry came to a sudden flowering in the 1770s and continued with some notable specimens for several decades thereafter. One of the earliest and most celebrated items, Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenore” (1773), consciously draws upon the Scottish ballad “Sweet William’s Ghost” from the Percy collection. This poignant tale of a woman who comes to the slow realisation that her lover, who is paying her a nighttime visit, is in fact a ghost was immensely influential in both England and the Continent; six different English translations of it, including one by Sir Walter Scott (as “William and Helen”), appeared during the 1790s.

Another immensely popular ballad is “The Erl-King” (1782) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749—1832), an extraordinarily moving account of a father who rides madly to save his son from the Erl-King (the king of the elfs) but fails:

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,

He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;

He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread—

The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead. (115)

But this is by no means the only one of Goethe’s short poems that deserves study here. “The Dance of Death” (1813) tells of corpses emerging from their graves to dance and features tremendous funereal imagery. And the celebrated “Bride of Corinth” (1797), written in a contest with Schiller in ballad-writing, is avowedly derived from the tale of Philinnion and Machates in Phlegon, but Goethe has transformed this harmless story of a revenant into a searching rumination on the conflict between love and death as well as on that between paganism and Christianity:

“From my grave to wander I am forc’d,

Still to seek The God’s long-sever’d link,

Still to love the bridegroom I have lost,

And the life-blood of his heart to drink;

When his race is run,

I must hasten on,

And the young must ’neath my vengeance sink.” (150)

Curiously, Goethe’s Faust (1808—32), although we have seen that influenced some Gothic writing even before it was published, is itself less central to the weird tradition than one might think. The actual “compact” between Faust and Mephistopheles (Part I, Scene 4) is handled in a surprisingly subdued fashion, and aside from a few early scenes in Part I the poem is generally lacking in supernatural manifestations. Naturally, the Faust theme has been a dominant one in supernatural litrature, but it does not seem to owe many of its details to Goethe’s epic.

The “Tam o’Shanter” (1793) of Robert Burns (1759—1796) is a potent horrific specimen of a wild midnight ride, although manifestly under a Christian perspective (“That night … / The Deil had business on his hand” [ll. 77—78]). Much the same can be said of James Hogg’s “The Witch of Fife,” written in a nearly impenetrable Scots dialect and telling the story of a woman who reveals herself to be a witch and speaks of attending a witches’ sabbath in Lapland. The poem is more concentratedly supernatural than the more celebrated “Kilmeny,” whose Scots dialect has been mercifully tempered; but this account of a woman who is kidnapped by the fairies would nowadays be classed more as fantasy than supernatural horror. Both poems are in The Queen’s Wake (1813).

Nearly all the British Romantic poets, with the notable exception of Wordsworth, indulged in the supernatural to varying degrees. (Wordsworth did produce “The Thorn,” a paraphrase of Bürger’s non-supernatural poem of a vicious child-murder.) The poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834) is replete with horrific imagery. As with Lovecraft a century later, he may have been initially inclined toward the weird by his childhood reading of the Arabian Nights; indeed, much of his weird work falls on either side of the line demarcating fantasy and supernatural horror. Such poems as “Melancholy” (1797) and “The Dungeon” (1798) are replete with Gothic imagery; the opening lines of the former tell the whole story:

Stretch’d on a moulder’d Abbey’s broadest wall,

Where ruining ivies propp’d the ruins steep—

Her folded arms wrapping her tatter’d pall,

Had Melancholy mus’d herself to sleep. (73)

Of course, Coleridge’s greatest contribution to the weird—and, it is safe to say, the greatest weird poem ever written—is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). It is difficult to write briefly about this imperishable and richly interpretable 625-line poem, but what strikes us immediately is the degree to which it relies on a Christian worldview. While the poem can be read secularly as a simple case of cosmic revenge—the cruelty of the Mariner in his irrational killing the albatross results in the tragic destruction of his crew and in his continual telling of his lamentable tale—the specific language of Coleridge’s poem makes unmistakably clear that the albatross, white in its purity, is a Christ-figure. This becomes apparent in the crew’s first glimpse of the creature: “As if it had been a Christian soul, / We hailed it in God’s name” (ll. 65—66). When the Mariner kills the albatross he is aware that “I had done a hellish thing” (l. 91), and one gains the impression that the adjective is meant literally. Fastened to the Mariner’s neck, the albatross only falls off (after his crew has all died) when he “blessed” (l. 285) God’s creatures. At this juncture the crew comes to life:

Beneath the lightning and the Moon

The dead men gave a groan.

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,

Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;

It had been strange, even in a dream,

To have seen those dead men rise.

The helmsmen steered, the ship moved on;

Yet never a breeze up-blew;

The mariners all ’gan work the ropes,

Where they were wont to do;

They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—

We were a ghastly crew. (ll. 329—40)

The relation of the albatross to Christ now becomes explicit:

“Is it he?” quoth one, “Is this the man?

By him who died on cross,

With his cruel bow he laid full low

The harmless Albatross.” (ll. 398—401)

It is difficult to convey the supernatural richness of the Ancient Mariner: the encounter with a ghost-ship (ll. 171f.), the hideous revivification of the dead crew as they cheerlessly go about their mundane tasks, and numerous other details create an imperishable amalgam of supernaturalism and religious morality. Coleridge has skilfully used the contemporary popularity of the ballad to create a weird tale in verse that carries the reader along from one horrific scenario to the next.

After the Ancient Mariner, anything else by Coleridge would seem a disappointment. The unfinished Christabel (written in 1797—1800, published 1816) is also multilayered; on one level it can be seen as a metaphor for lesbianism, and on another (as John Beer has noted) it explores “the relationship between the world of everyday prudential reasoning and the world of romance” (76). In this scenario, the former is represented by the virginal Christabel, the latter by the strange figure of Geraldine, whom Christabel comes upon in a forest and who claims to have been kidnapped by unspecified warriors. From the start, there seems something not quite right about Geraldine: “Again she [Christabel] saw that bosom old, / Again she felt that bosom cold, / And drew in her breath with a hissing sound” (ll. 457—59). That “hissing sound” is a clever stroke, for it is Geraldine who ultimately reveals herself as an amalgam of woman and snake:

A snake’s small eye blinks dull and shy;

And the lady’s eyes they shrunk in her head,

Each shrunk up to a serpent’s eye,

And with somewhat of malice, and more of dread,

At Christabel she looked askance! (ll. 583—87)

But the poem ends soon thereafter, with the matter unresolved.

“Kubla Khan” (written 1798 [not 1797, as Coleridge states in the prefatory note to the poem]; published 1816) is a pure fantasy and hence strictly outside the domain of supernatural horror, but it is so celebrated that it is difficult to pass it over. It is now well known that the 54 lines of the poem were all that Coleridge could recollect of the “two or three hundred lines” (296) that he dreamed after falling asleep over a discussion of Kubla Khan in Purchase His Pilgrimage (1626). The “stately pleasure-dome” (l. 2) of Kubla Khan can be seen, among many other things, as a symbol for the untrammeled fantastic imagination.

The writing of these poems led Coleridge to enunciate one of the most celebrated dicta regarding the supernatural in literature—but it should be emphasisewd that his remark was made specifically in the context of supernatural poetry. In chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge recounts how he and Wordsworth conceived the plan to write Lyrical Ballads (1798/1800): the latter would write poems that would underscore “the truth of nature,” while Coleridge would write poems that would suggest “the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination” (168). This would be achieved by poetry in which “the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural”—yet the task would have to be done in such a manner “as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (168—69). No clearer statement on the symbolic value of the supernatural to convey “truth” could be found; but it is important to note that the “willing suspension of disbelief” is conceived to be a function specific to poetry. It could be argued that that disbelief may in fact be a trifle easier to achieve in poetry than in prose, since expectations of realism in the former are perhaps not quite as rigorous as in the latter; but Coleridge’s general point that the supernatural, if convincingly portrayed, can underscore truths about human life in a manner not always possible to other modes of writing is of great significance.

One of Sir Walter Scott’s first books was not a novel but a slim collection of poetry, Apology for Tales of Terror (1799) (in spite of its title, there is no prose discussion of the supernatural in poetry or prose). It includes a number of his translations from the German, including two of Bürger’s poems and Goethe’s “Erl-King,” along with sundry poems by Matthew Gregory Lewis and Robert Southey. But Scott’s most notable original weird poem is “Glenfinlas” (1801), a splendid ballad of supernatural seduction with surprisingly grisly imagery (“And last, the life-blood streaming warm, / Torn from the trunk, a gasping head” [ll. 243—44]).

This sets the stage for Lewis’s Tales of Wonder (dated 1801 but issued in late 1800), a substantial anthology of weird verse whose occasional excesses led to a parodic volume, Tales of Terror (1801), which many later readers and scholars also believed to have been edited by Lewis, even though it included such obvious buffooneries as “The Scullion Sprite; or, The Garret Goblin” and “The Mud-King; or, Smedley’s Ghost.” Matters were not helped by the fact that Tales of Terror was sometimes dated to 1799—a result of its confusion with Apology for Tales of Terror, one copy of which in fact bore the title Tales of Terror. I am not sure it is known who assembled the parodic Tales of Terror, but some of the poems in Tales of Wonder do leave themselves open to charges of over-the-top luridness—exactly what one would expect from the author of The Monk. Consider Lewis’s wild supernatural revenge ballad “Osric the Lion”:

… the demons their prey flocked around;

They dashed him, with horrible yell, on the ground,

And blood down his limbs trickled fast;

His eyes from their sockets with fury they tore;

They fed on his entrails, all reeking with gore,

And his heart was Ulrilda’s repast. (120)

On the other hand, the volume does contain such noteworthy items as Lewis’s “Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene” (from The Monk), a powerful supernatural revenge ballad in which a skeleton drags Imogene away on her wedding night. Lewis in fact wrote his own parody of this ballad, “Giles Jolleys the Grave, and Brown Sally Green,” directly following “Alonzo the Brave” in Tales of Wonder. “The Grim White Woman” is another effective ballad. Lewis also made his own translation of Goethe’s “The Erl-King” and also published an anonymous burlesque of it, “The Cinder-King.”

Brief note can be taken of Robert Southey’s entertaining ode “To Horror” (1797), which, although full of pleasantly shuddersome imagery, seems to have no particular message of consequence. The explicitly weird poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley seem confined to juvenilia, as for example the engaging “Ghasta; or, The Avenging Demon!!!” (1810; I have no idea what the three exclamation marks are meant to convey), announced by the author as a paraphrase from “a few unconnected German Stanzas” (853), or the various poems included in St. Irvyne (1811), some of which appear to have been written as early as 1808. As florid exercises in shudder-mongering they are transiently engaging; otherwise, they don’t amount to much.

The Lamia (1820) of John Keats (1795—1821) would seem to owe something to Christabel, for here again we are concerned with a snake-woman. Hermes took a snake and turned her into a woman, and she promptly seduces the young philosopher Lycius and marries him; but the older philosopher Apollonius recognises her as a lamia or snake-woman, and she vanishes from the wedding feast. Lycius dies, his marriage robe turned into a shroud. The basic scenario was derived from an anecdote in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). The symbolism of the poem is difficult to interpret; are we to see Lamia as the embodiment of fantastic romance, banished by the excessive rationalism of Apollonius? Whatever the case, the poem seems to end a bit abruptly, its frisson of horror rapidly dispelled. Many other of Keats’s poems touch upon the supernatural in varying degrees, but none so concentratedly as Lamia.

The Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779—1852), now better known for his letters and journals and for his recollections of his more distinguished contemporaries than for his own poetry, was once immensely popular, but little of his verse lives today. Much of it is laced with fantasy and the supernatural. The long poem Lalla Rookh (1817) is an instance of the Mogul (Muslim) tale and features some elements of Persian fantasy. Then there is the curious situation surrounding the fragmentary poem “Alciphron.” It was evidently written before the short novel based upon it, The Epicurean (1827), but the latter was published first. Miriam Allen deFord is correct in describing the poem as evidence of “Moore’s lifelong interest in theological speculation” (52), and she is equally right in declaring that it is “talky and exceedingly dull” (53). The novel is a little less so. The basic thrust of the story is the desire of Alciphron, an Epicurean philosopher in Athens, for eternal life (let it pass that this is an utter violation of the core tenets of Epicureanism, which saw in death a state of blissful oblivion) and his voyage to Egypt in quest of it. The work is set in the year A.D. 257. Reaching Alexandria, Alciphron (who tells the story in the first person) realises that he must go “beneath the Pyramids” (13) to find the soul of the real Egypt. Along the way, he becomes infatuated with a woman he sees in a procession.

The underground scene is really a triumph of the imagination, and it creates a sense of pseudo-supernaturalism that lingers even after the phenomena are explained naturalistically:

At every step the noise of the dashing waters increased; and I now perceived that I had entered an immense rocky cavern, through the middle of which, headlong as a winter-torrent, the flood, to whose roar I had been listening, poured its dark waters; while upon its surface floated grim, spectre-like shapes, which as they went by sent forth those dismal shrieks I had heard,—as if in fear of some awful precipice towards whose brink they were hurrying. (66)

But the novel rapidly suffers a letdown thereafter, as the narrative becomes consumed with the conflict between Alciphron’s inamorata (Alethe, who is a priestess of Isis but wishes to become a Christian) and a high-priest, Orcus, who wishes to convert Alciphron to the Egyptian religion. Nevertheless, as one of the earliest excursions into Egyptian horror it remains notable.

The readiness with which Moore transformed his poem into a prose work suggests that the bountiful weirdness in the poetry of the English and German Romantics—much of it in narrative forms such as the ballad—was becoming a kind of pendant to the Gothic novel. But even in its lengthiest instances, such as the Ancient Mariner, these poems were considerably shorter than the standard Gothic novel and, because of their intensity of expression, carried a far greater emotive impact. They were, in effect, versified short stories at a time when the short story did not exist as a stable or consistent prose medium. The precise degree to which this weird verse influenced the actual emergence of the supernatural short story is a subject worth considerable study. The fact that so many early practitioners of the short story—Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and, culminating and eclipsing them all, Poe—were themselves poets is more than suggestive.