The supernatural is one aspect, perhaps the most important one, of the genre of Gothic fiction or poetry. Although supernatural themes can be identified in all pieces of Gothic literature the presentations differs vastly, especially when it comes to the Romantic period in which the Gothic genre gained attention and popularity. Said popularity and its simplicity are the reasons for its vilification by well known poets at the time. Contrary to the fact that Gothic literature has been demeaned and criticised as worthless by Romantic authors like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and their contemporaries by cause of its conformity to the people's taste, some features of Gothic fiction can be found in Romantic poems. One could argue, that this is owed to the fact that the poets mentioned above attempted to increase their degree of popularity amongst the readers of Gothic fiction, but I hold the opinion that this would be a false accusation. They undeniably used certain features of the Gothic genre in some of their Romantic poems, but in ways which can be considered to be of great elegance and use for the Romantic period as a whole.
In the following essay I am going to compare the treatment of the supernatural in the traditional Scottish ballade 'The Daemon Lover' to Coleridge's 'Christabel', John Keat's 'The Eve of St Agnes' and Mary Robinson's 'The Haunted Beach'. Subsequent to the juxtaposition of these different approaches to the supernatural I will examine how the Romantic poets implemented Gothic features into their works. I argue that the Gothic features in these poems serve as symptomatic representations of human emotions.
The Supernatural embedment in Romantic Poetry
The Scottish ballade 'The Daemon Lover' is concerned with victimization, debility and the fear of the supernatural. The victimization is represented , according to Toni Reed, in the interaction between a woman who is 'primed for victimization' due to certain conditions during her adolescents, and 'pathologically cruel men'.1 Concerning 'The Daemon Lover' it cannot be specified if the woman is primed for victimization, but her involvement with her old lover results in such a relationship, nonetheless. In this ballade the debilitation of the female characters and the super natural go hand in hand. The superhuman powers of the daemon make it clear-cut how the woman is on her former lover's mercy, which illustrates the psychological background. Moreover, Reed states that these kind of tales were used as subtle means of controlling women by confirming the linkage of easy morals and thorough destruction. (cf. Reed:116) Hence, there was not only a frightening tale, but one which should affect its readers behaviour and make them stick to good morals. The supernatural is portrayed as a persuasive and destructive force which bears no good.
- Much in the same way as in the ballade, the supernatural in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Christabel' is associated with bad morals and destruction:
- And slowly rolled her eyes around;
- Then drawing in her breath aloud
- Like one that shuddered, she unbound
- The cincture from beneath her breast2
Geraldine undresses herself when she is supposed to pray and she commands Christabel to undress as well before she begins her prayer. While Geraldine prays or pretends to do so, Christabel perceives her to act somewhat orgasmic before she joins Christabel in bed. It can be doubted, that Geraldine prays at all on account of the position she holds in the poem and because of the haunted air which surrounds her. In 'Christabel' Coleridge juxtaposes evil with devoutness and sexuality with purity. The supernatural is not the most dominant aspect of the poem but it is used in order to draw a clear contrast between Geraldine and Christabel. Geraldine's behaviour is inexplicable, since we do not fully understand what or who she is. According to G. R. Thopson it is 'the constant perplexity of perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule'3, which opposed the mainstream of Romantic thought. With Geraldine Coleridge produced a female figure that was in line with this opposition, which triggered the fascination of the supernatural. Much like the daemon lover, she could have done anything at any given time. By playfully hinting at Geraldine's strange and odd behaviour and due to the fact that he never fully explains it, Coleridge manages to give his poem just a bit of Gothic atmosphere. So, the supernatural makes a big part of the characterisation of Geraldine as sinful.
Coleridge confronts the supernatural with the natural by means of Sir Leoline's old dog. The dog serves as a presentation of the natural in that sense that it reacts negatively to the supernatural embodied by Geraldine. (cf. 'Christabel' 140-150) Coleridge emphasizes the fact that it has never reacted in such a way when Christabel was around and ends the stanza with a question as to what could have triggered such behaviour. Moreover it seems as Geraldine cannot enter the house on her on since she sinks to the ground in front of the door, lets Christabel carry her into the hall and then gets up as if 'she were not in pain'. ('Christabel ll. 124-129') These hints help to establish the bizarre atmosphere which encases Geraldine. I argue that Coleridge includes a criticism of the Gothic genre as a whole in this section of the poem. He lets the dog which is besides the owl and the tree under which Geraldine is found the thing most closely connected to nature, oppose the supernatural entity in the poem. The dog does not attack Geraldine or bark at her but the 'angry moan' in its sleep in combination with the narrator's question at the end of the stanza may serve as a discreet indicator for another level of meaning. ( 'Christabel' l. 143)
In The Haunted Beach the supernatural enhances the Gothic mode of the poem but mostly in an aesthetic way. The spectres increase the thrilling mood much like the description of the beach, of the hut and of the cliff. The first stanzas of the poem describe the Gothic scenery as 'lonely', 'shattered' and 'sombre'. (cf. 'The Haunted Beach' ll. 1-6) The language clearly emphasising the gloomy setting as can be seen by the extensive description of nature. This is especially true for the first three stanzas. The 'lonely desert beach', 'the sombre path displayed', the 'jutting cliff' or the description of some cavern's 'shad'wy jaws' are just some examples of Robinson's mood influencing language. ('The Haunted Beach' ll. 1,6,10,15) The fourth stanza refers to the spectres. It establishes the atmosphere for what is to follow. In contrast to Coleridge's 'Christabel', in 'The Haunted Beach' the supernatural is more important for the visualisation, than for the plot. Moreover, the supernatural constructs two dimension: the human cosmos of rationality and the realm of the Other, characterized by its incomprehensibility.4
In John Keats' 'The Eve of St Agnes' the supernatural is employed in quite a positive way. In contrast to 'The Daemon Lover' he does not utilize magic to twist the plot or punish immoral deeds. All the more he celebrates young love and creates a sphere by means of the Gothic imagery he uses. Set on the eve of St Agnes the poem bears a predisposition for magic, spells, charms and rites. According to a common believe at that time unwed women can provoke visions of their later husbands by means of a rite. The supernatural is no source of fear, but one of love and it is willingly evoked. (cf. 'The Eve of St Agnes' l. 63) When Madeline tries to evoke a vision of her husband the supernatural is narrowed down to the rite she performs. Although there is no actual magic involved in the poem the characters make references to ghosts, 'elves and fayes'. ( 'The Eve of St Agnes' l. 121) The effect of these terms is to support the Gothic atmosphere which is provoked in a different way than in the ballade or in 'Christabel'. Instead of centring the supernatural around one character, Keats drenches his poem in images which trigger associations in the reader. Keats and Robinson take a similar approach to the supernatural, but in order to achieve different goals. While Keats highlights the romantic relationship by all means and presents positive feelings, Robinson exploits the dark Gothic imagery to draw the readers attention towards the despair and mourning inherent to her work. Keats and Coleridge share some similarities as well. Both use the supernatural to emphasises another aspect of their poem. While the purity and innocence of Christabel are highlighted by means of the stark contrast to Geraldine's wickedness, Keats creates a warm and magical cosmos as a result of the spells and rites which differ vastly from the cold and adversarial surroundings, presented by the 'barbarian hordes' Porphyro would encounter if he was discovered. ('The Eve of St Agnes' l. 85) This magical cosmos is best portrayed by the dreamy slumber Madeline slips in before Porphyro wakes her up. (cf. 'The Eve of St Agnes' ll. 235-265)
The 'Psychologisation' of Gothic Elements
During the late 18th century many Romantic poets made use of Gothic feature in their texts. As I already mentioned they did not intend, or at least not primarily, to gain a bigger readership by doing so, but to create highly emotional poems. In a close examination of the poems I will reveal the function of the Gothic components and present how these features have been psychologised.
In 'The Haunted Beach' Robinson is mostly concerned with what is seen and the description of the visual features of the beach. This is a great contrast to solely Romantic poems in which the poet often plays a crucial role or reflects upon what he sees. Despite the poet's absence in the poem as a character the text is not exclusively descriptive. The landscape and the surroundings play a great role for the emotional backdrop of the poem. The first stanzas are full of adjectives or images that set the mood of the poem, but more important than that, the depiction of the landscape conveys emotion without referring to any human being: 'And all around the crags were bound/ With weeds, forever waving' ('The Haunted Beach' ll. 12-13) The beach and the surrounding cliff trap the reader with its dark and enclosing imagery. Moreover, the repetition of the last line in every stanza helps to make the impression the ever waving weeds began, namely that no living soul will ever leave this beach.
1 Reed, Toni. Demon-lovers and Their Victims in British Fiction Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988, p. 116
2 Coleridge, S.T. 'Christabel' in Romanticism: an Athology. Ed. Duncan Wu. 4th ed. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. ll. 240 -243, p. 665
3 G. R. Thompson The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Washington State university press, Washington. 1974. p. 5
4 cf. Aguirre, Manuel 'Mary Robinson's 'The Haunted Beach' and the Grammar of Gothic'. Springer Science + Business Media, Dordrecht. 2014. p. 639
- Quote paper
- M. A., M. Ed. Felix Krenke (Author), 2014, "The Daemon Lover", Coleridge’s "Christabel", Robinson’s "The Haunted Beach" and Keats’s "The Eve of St. Agnes", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1007985