Milton and the Eighteenth Century - Anticipations - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

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

Milton and the Eighteenth Century
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The later seventeenth century, in England and the Continent, was not notable for the production of even proto-supernatural literature: the dominance of Puritanism in England spelled the demise of the thriving Elizabethan drama, and no one is likely to consider the various monsters populating John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678—84)—most notably the fiend Apollyon—as anticipating any significant trends in weird fiction, since these entities are so plainly tied to Christian tradition. Much the same could be said for the one undeniable literary classic of seventeenth-century England, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667); but, just as in the case of Dante’s Inferno, the force of Milton’s imagination allowed his Christian-based visions to cast a much broader shadow over subsequent literature, weird and otherwise, than Bunyan’s.

Our interest is almost entirely restricted to Book 2, the detailed description of Satan and his imps in Hell. Let it pass that Milton’s theology departs from Scripture in significant regards; taking a few hints from Revelation and later Protestant tradition, Milton has fashioned an image of Hell that permanently entered the pictorial imagination of Western culture. What strikes us about his depiction is the degree to which it is indebted, for many facets of its imagery, to the monsters of classical antiquity, notably as found in Homer and Virgil—a point that is suggested even in Book 1, with the introduction of Satan and his crew:

Thus Satan talking to his nearest Mate

With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes

That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides

Prone on the Flood, extended long and large

Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge

As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,

Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,

Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den

By ancient Tarsus held … (1.192—200)

The pattern continues in Book 2, where the vision of Hell melds with that of Hades:

Thither by harpy-footed Furies hal’d,

At certain revolutions all the damn’d

Are brought: and feel by turns the bitter change

Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce,

From Beds of raging Fire to starve in Ice

Thir soft Ethereal warmth, and there to pine

Immovable, infixt, and frozen round,

Periods of time, thence hurried back to fire,

They ferry over this Lethean Sound

Both to and fro, thir sorrow to augment,

And wish and struggle, as they pass, to reach

The tempting stream, with one small drop to lose

In sweet forgetfulness all pain and woe,

All I one moment, and so near the brink;

But Fate withstands, and to oppose th’ attempt

Medusa with Gorgonian terror guards

The Ford, and of itself the water flies

All taste of living wight, as once it fled

The lip of Tantalus. (2.596—614)

The powerful bleakness of Hell is patent even to those who do not ascribe to Milton’s theology:

A Universe of death, which God by curse

Created evil, for evil only good,

Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,

Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,

Abominable, inutterable, and worse

Than Fables yet have feign’d, or fear conceiv’d,

Gorgons and Hydras, and Chimeras dire. (2.622—28)

Milton himself would probably have been appalled to think of himself as some kind of antecedent of supernatural literature, for, in spite of its vivid colouring, his Hell was to him a real and therefore natural place; but with the decline of religious orthodoxy in the eighteenth century and beyond, his frankly lurid painting of the underworld could be relished for what in fact it is—an unfettered exercise of the imagination.

As for “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal” (1706) by Daniel Defoe (1660—1731)—or, to give it its full (and significant) title, “A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal”—there is (as in the case of Phlegon above) some reason to question its inclusion in a study of supernatural fiction, because it is evident that Defoe did not consider it a work of fiction at all. (There is, incidentally, some small doubt whether the tract, published anonymously, even is by Defoe, but the general consensus is that it is.) This simple, straightforward account of a revenant—Mrs. Veal, the day after she died, comes back from the dead and spends two hours with her friend Mrs. Bargrave, whom she has not seen in two and a half years; Mrs. Bargrave, presumably not knowing of Mrs. Veal’s death, talks to her in a normal fashion and only later learns that she has been speaking with a dead person—became immensely popular in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chiefly for the bland and deadpan manner of its narration; but a consideration of Defoe’s other works on the same general theme makes it quite clear that he himself was attempting to pass it off as a true account.

What is more, Defoe himself did not invent any of the details or characters in the story. Rodney M. Baine, in his admirable (if somewhat credulous) study Daniel Defoe and the Supernatural (1968), points out that various accounts of the “apparition” had appeared in newspapers in late 1705, well before Defoe’s pamphlet appeared, and there is no reason to think that Defoe has embellished any part of the account. Moreover, in spite of the fact that Defoe himself (assuming that the first-person narrator of the account is he) states that “I can avouch for her [Mrs. Bargrave’s] Reputation … and I can confirm the Good Character she had from her Youth, to the time of my Acquaintance” (134), there is no evidence that Defoe himself interviewed Mrs. Bargrave or derived the account of Mrs. Veal other than at second hand.

One hopes that the long-discredited belief that Defoe fabricated the entire story as a means of selling an English translation of Charles Drelincourt’s Christian’s Defence against the Fears of Death (1675) can finally be put to rest. It is true that Defoe mentions Drelincourt on three separate occasions in his little screed, and it is also true that the work was used as a preface to later editions of Drelincourt; but that is the extent of the connexion with the French theologian. And yet, as Baine points out, Defoe himself clearly sympathised with Drelincourt’s overall message and may well have found in the account of Mrs. Veal a means of combating the growing scepticism in regard to revenants and other such phenomena—a scepticism that Defoe, in his cultural conservatism, appears to have regarded as tantamount to atheism. In the preface to his account he states plainly that “The use which we ought to make of it is, to consider, That there is a Life to come after this, and a Just God, who will retribute to every one according to the Deeds done in the Body” (134). The first part of this statement—assuming the Mrs. Veal story to be true—may be sound enough, but the second does not seem to follow, for it is difficult to ascertain how Mrs. Veal has gained any kind of posthumous reward or punishment for her actions in life.

A quick glance at Defoe’s other works on the same general subject—“Vision of the Angelick World” (1720), about the presence of angels in human history and their role in human affairs; the twin treatises The Political History of the Devil (1726) and A System of Magick (1726), about the Devil and fallen angels, which Defoe regards as unquestioned realities; and, most pertinently, Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727), on apparitions found both in Scripture and in more recent human history—make it quite clear that Defoe was, to be frank, a highly credulous believer in such anomalous phenomena and therefore found the story of Mrs. Veal appealing on more than one level.

In the end, it appears that Mrs. Bargrave either invented the story of Mrs. Veal’s apparition herself, or perhaps actually believed that she had been so visited. In Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Samuel Johnson—himself a man of serious, even tormented piety who longed to believe in an afterlife that would mitigate his terrors of death—maintained that “I believe the woman [Mrs. Bargrave] declared upon her death that it was a lie” (quoted in Baine 94); this does not appear to be the case, and Johnson is recording the view at second-hand. In any event, Defoe clearly believed Mrs. Bargrave and hoped that her account was true. “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal,” for all its celebrity, is a poor piece of work even if regarded as purely fictional; for Defoe’s account is so excessively circumstantial, and narrated in such a sober-faced manner, that it fails to develop any emotional resonance.

Henry Fielding, in Tom Jones (1749), ridiculed the Mrs. Veal story in passing, and his depiction (Book VII, ch. 14) of Tom Jones himself pretending to be a ghost is merely meant to poke fun at the hapless wight who is taken in by Jones’s charade. The first chapter of Book VIII purports to be a learned disquisition on “the marvellous,” and its main point (“I think it may very reasonably be required of every writer that he keeps within the bounds of possibility” [346]) would, if carried out, mean the effective demise of supernatural literature. Fielding does, however (granting that his entire discussion is cloaked in flippancy) make the important point that actual gods (in the pagan tradition) or God (in the Christian tradition) should not be evoked frivolously, or perhaps at all; instead, “The only supernatural agents which can in any manner be allowed to us moderns are ghosts; but of these I would advise an author to be extremely sparing” (347). That last bit of advice is certainly sensible, although it required Poe and his successors to carry it out. In the one other passage in the eighteenth-century British novelists that has been singled out—the visit by Renaldo, count de Melvile, to the grave of his beloved, Monimia, at midnight (ch. 62 of Tobias Smollett’s Count Fathom [1753])—there is not even the hint of supernaturalism, although an effective atmosphere of gloom is created. The age was not welcoming of the supernatural: the commencement of empirical science heralded by the establishment of the Royal Society in 1662, the philosophy and physics of Locke and Newton, and the hard-headed rationalism of Dr. Johnson rendered the early and middle eighteenth century stony ground for ghosts and goblins; the same can be said of the Continent, where the philosophes’ aggressive clearing away of the supernatural foundations of the Christian religion may have dissuaded creative artists from using ghosts and goblins even as literary symbols.

Some literary historians have argued that the school loosely termed the “graveyard poets” had an influence on subsequent supernatural literature, but the best that can be said of this movement is that it represented a kind of bridge between the Christian supernaturalism of Milton and the romanticism of the later eighteenth century. The poets of this school (if it can really be said to be a school), obsessed in some degree with the phenomenon of death, emphasised the melancholy or moral aspects of death rather than its dreadful of fearful aspects. As Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted in her important study of eighteenth-century supernatural poetry, Milton was, at least early in the century, a significant influence on many minor poets of the period, as in, say, Elizabeth Rowe’s “The History of Joseph.” The few noteworthy supernatural poems of this era— John Gay’s “A True Story of an Apparition” (1720), which contains some splendid horrific imagery; David Mallet’s ballad “William and Margaret” (1730), a powerful fusion of love and death; William Collins’s “Ode to Fear” (1746), heavily indebted to classical literature for its images—do not, cumulatively, amount to much. And the two most noteworthy instances of graveyard poetry, Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts (1742—45) and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), have little or nothing of the horrific about them.

It is, accordingly, not a little surprising that, even in the wake of James Macpherson’s “Ossianic” poems of the 1760s—prose translations or paraphrases of ancient Gaelic poetry, full of wild imagery just on this side of supernaturalism—a humble little book published on Christmas Day of 1764 would initiate a literary genre that would ultimately gain immense popularity and, on occasion, produce works of substantial merit; but such are the vagaries of literary history.