Gothic Aesthetic in The Romantic Period

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Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 4681|Pages: 10.5|24 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

From the late-eighteenth to the early-nineteenth century, known as the Romantic period, there existed a shift in some cultural and artistic elements that leaned towards a revival of the Gothic. As well as a revival of the Gothic through architectural adaptations in England, writers in particular began to enjoy incorporating elements of the Gothic aesthetic into their works, thus beginning a mergence of the two styles. The imagery associated with the Gothic was seen to be so distinct and carried a certain essence that its use, whether inspired politically, socially, architecturally, culturally, or spiritually, made for an interesting and unique collection of literary works.

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In order to better understand the correlation between the Romantic and the Gothic, it is first necessary to understand the basics and the complexes of defining both of these terms. In the simplest of terms, the Oxford Companion to English Literature defines Romanticism as “the triumph of the values of spontaneity, visionary originality, wonder, and emotional self-expression over the classical standards of balance, order, restraint, proportion, and objectivity...[it] derives from ‘romance’, the literary form in which desires and dreams prevail over everyday realities” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). Such prominent authors of the Romantic period include William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

To attempt to define the Gothic aesthetic, one must first define what is actually Gothic. The Oxford Companion to English Literature defines the Gothic literary tradition as “a distinct modern development in which the characteristic theme is the stranglehold of the past upon the present, or the encroachment of the ‘dark’ ages of oppression upon the ‘enlightened’ modern era...embodied typically in enclosed and haunted settings such as castle, crypts, convents, or gloomy mansions, in images of ruin and decay, and in episodes of imprisonment, cruelty, and persecution” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). It defines the term Gothic itself to mean ‘medieval, and by implication barbaric” (The Oxford Companion to English Literature). The Gothic revival includes that which reminisces or reminds of the past, socially, culturally, architecturally, and spiritually. It simultaneously allowed for a clashing of the old with the new in the creation of contemporary works, combining the historic with the modern, for a new ‘vintage’. Concepts, ideas, fears, emotions, opinions and morals that existed in the more medieval Gothic ages still existed in the Romantic period, so writers of the new gothic could take these traditional topics and find a new way to retell them to the readers. Ideals commonly associated with the Gothic revival are medeivalism, barbarism, and supernaturalism. Instituted largely with the use of the supernatural, or that which seemed supernatural but would later be found to me natural, people were reminded of their God-fearing and superstitious feelings, and of the presence of the ‘other’. As David Hume puts it, the Gothic novel “can be seen as one symptom of a widespread shift away from neoclassical ideals of order and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination” (Hume 282). Some Gothic works, which are to be discussed further, include Samuel Colderidge’s “Christabel”, John Keats’ “The Eve of St Agnes”, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, is considered to be the first Gothic novel, pioneering the way for other modern additions to the Romantic genre. Walpole himself, a staunch enthusiast of the Gothic revival, even had his own medieval-style castle constructed, following the inspiration of the Gothic architecture.

The relationship between the Romantic period and the Gothic revival can be discussed through the ways in which one inspired or interacted with the other. However, much difficulty arises in attempting to distinctly distinguish the connections between the Gothic influence on the Romantic and as Michael Gamer explains “what we have, then, are borrowings that cannot be explained exclusively in terms of influence, whether passive or active, individual or cultural...the relation of Gothic to Romantic ideology is itself a Gothic one, since Gothic’s presence in Romantic writing is characterized by ‘multiple interpretations...[of] multiple modes of consumption and production, [of] dangerous consumptions and excessive productivity, and [of] economies of meaning” (Gamer 28). Everything is subject to interpretation. Though it is difficult to distinguish where exactly the influence is, it is still possible to see the connections and assess the relationship that way. The presence of the Gothic, whether architectural, spiritual, cultural, social, or political is unmistakable within some romantic works, so it is an explorable subject.

The Romantic writers wanted to recognize growth and life and beauty, strike up emotions with readers, make them feel something new or something old. It didn’t necessarily matter as long as they were stimulated to feel or to react or to respond. David Hume discusses their relationship by suggesting that “gothic and romantic writing spring alike from a recognition of the insufficiency of reason or religious faith to explain and make comprehensible the complexities of life” (Hume 290). People are always looking for reasons and explanations to life’s questions and problems, and that which is inexplicable arouses feelings of resentment and anger. In having the Gothic influence their Romantic writing, authors were able to provide readers with the possibility of relief from these feelings. Hume further notes that while “Romantic writing reconciles the discordant elements it faces, resolving their apparent contradictions imaginatively in the creation of a higher order...Gothic writing, the product of serious fancy, has no such answers and can only leave the ‘opposites’ contradictory and paradoxical. In its highest forms romantic writing claims the existence of higher answers where Gothic can find only unresolvable moral and emotional ambiguity” (Hume 290). What better way to evoke religious presence in a reader than with a supernatural entity, hauntingly invisible yet so fearfully real. Just as with religion, one cannot visibly see it, but its presence is felt indefinitely.

In regards to the reception of the Gothic aesthetic within the Romantic period, attitudes towards the style varied. Some thought it to be too into the past, reminiscent of the barbaric and dark times of history. It represented decay and destruction, ignorance, cruelty and persecution. Some believed looking back didn’t allow forward movement. For others, the Gothic was “a vehicle for the transmission of a forward-looking mentality through the unenlightened middle ages” (Dugget 59). Some accepted these images of decay and destruction and used them towards seeing a new and brighter future; it was map of how far society had come. In moving forward, one must remember where they came from to know how far they’ve come. Either way it was a reminder of the medieval and more archaic times in English history, but whether that reminder provided one with a positive outlook for the future, or with profoundly negative memories of the past depended upon the individual. Michael Gamer acknowledges that “it is gothic’s ease of dispersal and ability not to stay within the confines of prose romance- its habit of collapsing disciplinary and social categories, however gendered or polarized- that constituted one of the primary threats to the reviewers who condemned it” (Gamer 4). In regards to Walpole’s reception in particular, E.J. Clery notes that Walpole’s “contemporaries [viewed] the Gothic age [as] a long period of barbarism, superstition, and anarchy [that] dimly stretched from the fifth century the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning...[and that] ‘Gothic’ also signified anything obsolete, old-fashioned, or outlandish” (Clery 21). People wanted to read new material and the idea that Walpole had written a Gothic story begged the question of its modernity. People have always had an obsession with ‘newness’ and originality, and the assumptions and associations that accompanied the term “Gothic”, especially when used in his title The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, generated a feeling of aversion towards the idea of Gothic literature. If one can assume that “only if a fiction is true to life can it become the vehicle of useful instruction or moral improvement”, than some wondered at what would be the benefit in reading a story where the moral is learned with the use of supernatural interference from some unknown entity (Clery 22).

Since the medieval Gothic is associated with a period of anarchy, its revival caused political concern and disapproval because of the fear of some form of political dissent. Coupled with the then-current political issues in England, “Gothic fiction and drama were perceived as threats to political and social order” (Gamer 31). Nonetheless, though this discouraged some from accepting it, its cultural, architectural, and spiritual influences were easier to receive.

Samuel T. Coleridge’s “Christabel” was written in two parts, written in 1797 and 1800, respectively. The poem is an exemplar of the Gothic’s influence of the Romantic. In the poem, Christabel is a maiden wandering through the woods in the middle of the night when she comes upon Geraldine laying tied up on the ground, claiming to have been a victim of kidnapping. Christabel brings Geraldine to her father Sir Leoline’s castle to give her sanctuary,whereupon they discover Geraldine to be the daughter of Leoline’s old enemy Roland. When Christabel begins to suspect Geraldine of trickery and deceit, before she is able to alert her father, she finds herself under a spell of Geraldine’s that won’t allow her to inform her father. Eventually Christabel breaks free of the spell, but upon informing her father, finds he refuses to believe her, accepting Geraldine and shutting out Christabel.

The poem employs traditional Gothic elements, from setting to psychology. The speaker notes that “Tis middle of night by the castle clock” and that “The night is chilly, but not dark/ The thin gray cloud is spread on high,/ it covers but not hides the sky./ The moon is behind, and at the full” (Colerdige 1,14-18). The very beginning of the poem occurs in the dark woods, setting up an eerily haunting setting where the reader can predict some forthcoming event. It creates an atmosphere of apprehension as Christabel is depicted wandering through foggy mists and shadowy moonlight. The tension builds as the reader waits in anticipation, expecting something as the narrator asks “Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?/There is not wind enough in the air...Hush beating heart of Christabel!/ Jesu, Maria, shield her well!” (Coleridge 45-57). This seemingly unearthly presence invokes the fear of the supernatural, questioning what type of existence is near. Upon the initial discovery of Geraldine by the tree, it appears the source was a victimized maiden, but as the poem advances Geraldine’s own corporeal reality is questioned and she becomes the source of the seemingly supernatural activity.

The reader becomes further suspect of Geraldine as she begs Christabel to “Have pity on my sore distress/ I scarce can speak for weariness:/Stretch forth thy hand, and have no fear!” (Coleridge 73-76). As Geraldine recounts the strange details of her kidnapping to Christabel something comes off awry, though what exactly that is, is difficult to tell. Geraldine seems suspicious and contradictory in her stories, and though it seems it could be a result of her distress, it instills a feeling of distrust in the reader. Something is off about the woman and her story. The supernatural is again suggested when the two women go to sleep together and Geraldine almost gives off the appearance of being a seductress of sorts as she settles in to lay beside Christabel and tells her “In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,/ Which is lord of they utterance, Christabel!/ Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,/ This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow” (Coleridge 257-260). There already seemed some sort of sorcery surrounding Geraldine, so hearing her mention it to Christabel arouses more fear in her intentions with the innocent maiden. The supernatural element is constantly mentioned or suggested, but never flat out revealed. When Christabel awakes and “Gathers herself from out her trance”, and later becomes aware of Geraldine’s serpentine traits as “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!” (Coleridge 573-577). Even the way the Leoline seems so readily enraptured by Geraldine suggests her to be of the supernatural, a siren of some sort. The notion that she could be supernatural, but the fact that it is never stated in the poem is even more frightening. It would be less frightening to know for sure if she is an evil unearthly entity, or just appears as such. Such a haunted setting, the supernatural Geraldine with her deceit, Christabel’s imprisonment under the spell, and the castle are all typical characteristics of the Gothic aesthetic.

Using similar characteristics of the Gothic aesthetic as “Christabel”, John Keats’ “The Eve of St Agnes” is a romance story of two young lovers. The poem uses strong Gothic imagery to create an atmosphere for the poem. Madeline is a young maiden who is in love with Porphyro, the son of her family’s enemy. Before retiring to bed one night, Madeline decides try a ritual on St Agnes’ Eve whereby a young virgin’s lover will come to her while she is sleeping. That same night, Porphyro, with the reluctant help of Angela (at her own perilous cost), sneaks into Madeline’s room in order to watch her beauty as she sleeps. When Porphyro awakes Madeline from her dream, she become confused at the sudden change in Porphyro between Madeline’s dream version of him and him in reality. He then convinces her to run away with him, and they never see her family again.

Again there is the presence of superstition and of the appearance of the supernatural with the St Agnes’ Eve tradition and the knights visiting in dreams. With high hopes of receiving a visit from their lover, a virgin will go to bed without supper, be naked, and lie face up towards heaven. Madeline, as well as the other girls readily follow this superstition since they are so eager and desperate for interaction with their lovers. The atmosphere is also set up for the Gothic aesthetic as the narrator describes “The sculptur’d dead, on each side, seem to freeze,/ Emprison’d in black, purgatorial rails:/...To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails” (Keats 14-18). Gloom, ruin, and decay are represented by the worn down statues, frozen in time and place, blackened and cursed. This draws upon the gothic as an image the medieval. As with before, the presence of the supernatural is questionable, not absolute but enough to ponder it’s existence. Madeline does end up dreaming of Porphyro, so it is really superstition or was there really some intervention on behalf of St Agnes? It is even questionable with Angela, who reluctantly allows Porphyro into Madeline’s chambers, against her better judgements and wishes. She regrets having allowed him in, and in the end of the poem she ends up dead. Is this possibly some supernatural intervention punishing her for allowing a male into a naked virgin’s room whilst she dreams? It is enough to beg the question of the possibility of the supernatural. The narrator even suggests a supernatural element to Madeline and Porphyro themselves as “They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;/ Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide” where the repeated use of ‘phantoms’ suggests they really have passed into the supernatural, leaving the natural world entirely (Keats 361-362). One could even argue that they have actually become phantoms, unearthly creatures, suggesting some psychological repercussions of their pre-marital encounter. Perhaps Madeline has run off in her mind with the dream version of Porphyro, or perhaps Porphyro and she have passed into an otherworldly existence. Such psychological features, questioning sanity are also part of the Gothic’s aesthetic.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, more commonly associated with being a feminist text because of its timing and influence in that area, has a storyline which revolves around the possibility of the existence of the supernatural. When Jane Eyre is hired as the new governess for Edward Rochester’s ward she begins falling in love with him, and strange happenings occur in the house. Since the story is told from Jane’s point of view, the reader is only aware of what she knows. A few times in the night Jane awakes to the feeling that someone is in her room, watching her; she even catches a glimpse at one point but is unsure of who or what she witnessed. In certain parts of the castle, Jane hears “the last sound I expected to hear in so still a region, a laugh, struck my ear. It was a curious laugh; distinct, formal, mirthless. I stopped: the sound ceased, only for an instant; it began again, louder: for at first, though distinct, it was very low. It passed off in a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber” (Bronte 158). The eerie laugh follows Jane throughout the house, occasionally appearing at moments when it seems wrong and suspicious. The reader becomes aware of some unsettling feeling associated with its presence. Jane eventually believes this to be the the laughter of Grace Poole, a women she believes “possessed with a devil” (Bronte 221). As soon as Jane thinks it, the reader wonders at it too. Is she possessed by some unearthly monster? The story continues with feelings of apprehension and fear every time Jane enters certain parts of the house. Things become even more frightening when Rochester’s room is lit on fire, and Jane believes it to be the work of Grace. The ‘demon’ now has proven to be some sort of evil, and the rest of the novel leaves the reader in fear over what demonic crime will be next. The reader shares Jane’s fear and apprehension, not knowing for certain who or what is the cause of the violence. Even more so at the possibility that a worse attack is in the near future.

Further in the novel, a visitor is attacked in the night, stabbed and near death. Jane obediently helps as Rochester requests, and it becomes evident that Rochester doesn’t find such violent occurrences suspicious, suggesting he has something to hide. Suspicion of him grows until it turns out the culprit is not Grace Poole, but Rochester’s own demented wife, a hidden secret from the world. Having gone mad years earlier, Rochester chose to hide her from the world, and hired Grace Poole to look after her within the castle. The illusion of a supernatural element is shattered, but the fear remains with this individual who is so dangerous and violent. Thus, this is one of the moments where the seemingly supernatural turns out to be the natural.

Having been the first true Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto encompasses a great deal of what is considered to be the Gothic’s aesthetic, from the imagery, to the architecture, to the psychological, to the supernatural, to the terror. As a Gothic novel it “is part of the new ‘literature of process’ which reflects its creator’s mind” and it “attempts to rouse the reader’s imaginative sympathies” (Hume 282). Manfred is owner of the castle and the master of the land and his son is killed on his wedding day when a gigantic helmet falls on him from the sky. In an attempt to maintain control over his land Manfred tries to divorce his faithful wife Hippolita for his late son’s fiancée Isabella. Isabella flees to a church for safety from the abominable idea of marrying her dead fiancé's married father, and receives the aide of a prisoner named Theodore. The Castle of Otranto begins with the ominous prophecy “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it” (Walpole 17). Straight off from the beginning the novel seems prepared to proceed in a predetermined state of events, though they are yet unknown. The reader is hinted at the direction the novel will take. The curiosity surrounding the bizarre prophecy brings an element of mystery to the novel. What does the prophecy mean? Where did it come from? Will it come true? Does it come from divine or supernatural intervention? Mystery and uncertainty produce feelings of apprehension and fear, all of which aid to the construction of the Gothic aesthetic. That which is unknown prompts wonder and begs for answers. These questions have the reader wondering throughout the course of the novel.

The atmosphere and setting for the novel also encompass elements that form a Gothic aesthetic. The Gothic is “embodied typically in enclosed and haunted settings such as castle, crypts, [and] convents” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). Titled after the location, the Castle of Otranto is the most blatant use of the Gothic for the presence of the castle. When the townspeople are attempting to figure out what happened to Manfred’s son, they establish Theodore “has stolen the helmet from good Alfonso’s tomb, and dashed the brains of our young prince with it” thus bringing in the crypt. The place of sanctuary for the characters on the run, naturally, becomes the church; Isabella and Theodore both use it to escape the wrath of Manfred. All three structural elements that represent the Gothic aesthetic are used by Walpole in Otranto. Since his was the pioneering work for the genre, it is evident that his examples of these three are what later writers drew inspiration from.

Manfred himself encompasses the archaic notions of the Gothic since he ruled the land with the hand of tyranny, controlling everything, retaining power for himself and for his legacy. Alfred Longuiel’s definition applies perfectly to Manfred in that “the adjective ‘Gothic’ is employed as a definite and recognized synonym for barbarous. Most often this usage is in connection with ignorance, cruelty, or savageness, qualities associated with the inherited Renaissance view of the middle ages” (455). Manfred is a cruel and selfish ruler, concerned only with preserving his family’s name upon the throne. He cares not what the cost of power is or the consequences of his actions for others. He is the embodiment of barbaric rule. It is because of his tyrannic ways that the story unfolds as it does, as the consequences of all his actions finally catching up. Manfred had even imprinted Isabella’s “mind with terror, from his causeless rigor to such amiable princesses as Hippolita and Matilda” (Walpole 19). Terror is a common element of the Gothic aesthetic, used as an attempt to invoke morals. Manfred wrongfully imprison’s Theodore and sentences him to death, blaming him for the crushing death of his son. Such imprisonment is another common element of the Gothic. Such “terror dependent on suspense or dread is the modus operandi of the novels of Walpole...[it] holds the reader’s attention through dread of a series of terrible possibilities” (Hume 285).

The Gothic images of ruin and decay are portrayed through the collapse of Manfred’s power. His years of greed and tyrannical rule have returned for justice. The image of decay would not be complete however if it was only Manfred himself who suffers. After the loss of his only male heir, Manfred goes on to accidentally kill his own daughter, mistaking her for Isabella and stabbing her in a fit of jealous rage. This is the final piece of the collapse and after Manfred has lost everything, power is restored to the rightful person, Theodore. The prophecy had stated that when “the real owner should be grown to large” for the lordship, the new ruler would gain possession. The irony lies in that it is when Manfred has nothing left and lost his children that he has grown “too large” (Walpole 17).

Walpole’s Otranto “aimed at a medieval atmosphere by means of medieval background, -lonely castles, haunted towers, subterranean passages, knights in armor, magic. But to the reading public the outstanding feature of these stories appears to have been, not their gothic setting, but their supernatural incident” (Longeil 458). Walpole’s use of the supernatural is principally in the form of the frequently reappearing large parts of armor. His son is crushed by a giant helmet. One of the servants claims he witnessed a giant foot in the gallery chamber, while another, Bianca, sees a giant hand appear in another part of the castle. These gigantic pieces of body and armor have caused fear and unrest among the castle’s household. Multiple occupants have seen it, but no one can identify it. The mystery of it remains one of the main mysteries of the novel.

Other moments also suggest the supernatural; earlier Bianca claims to hear voices in the hallways and determines the castle to be haunted. At one point the “plumes on the enchanted helmet, which still remained at the other end of the court, were tempestuously agitated, and nodded thrice, as if bowed by some invisible wearer” (Walpole 53). Manfred’s fear of Theodore arises out of his uncanny similarities to the hanging portrait of Alfonso in the gallery, and Manfred himself even initially took Theodore for a specter. Even though it is discovered later that he is in fact a descendant of Alfonso, there is still an element of the supernatural carried within Theodore for the entirety of the novel. One wonder’s how it happened to be that even though he hadn’t a clue as to who his relations are, by some work of fate he manages to make his way to his rightful throne. The supernatural works with destiny in placing him there.

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David Hume notes that the “prime feature of the Gothic its attempt to involve the reader in special circumstances” (Hume 286). It manages a striking new literary form, taking the Romantic period ideals and themes and incorporating the Gothic aesthetic for a profoundly unique style of literature. The gothic revival explored old elements in a new way. Revolving primarily around the creation of a brooding, dark, supernatural, and medieval atmosphere, the Gothic aesthetic worked its way into the Romantic period. Its classical yet somewhat archaic elements proved to be challenging in its overall reception. What did it really make people feel? Was the medieval a concept to be left behind, with the barbaric and tyrannical notions associated with it, or was it a concept to be remembered and drawn from, a reminder of forward steps. With distinct associations socially, politically, culturally, architecturally, and spiritually, the mere idea of the Gothic aesthetic worked towards what the Gothic aesthetic itself did: it got people to react, to feel, to respond. Prior to Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, there didn’t even exist the concept of a Gothic novel. His accomplishments with that novel paved the way for other Romantic writer’s to draw inspiration for new stories from the medieval ages, allowing for a reminder of what the medieval times were like, and how far England has come as a nation of growth.

Works Cited

  1. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Service & Paton, 1897. Print.
  2. Clery, E.J. “The genesis of ‘Gothic’ fiction.” Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 21-39. Print.
  3. Colerdige, Samuel Taylor. “Christabel.” The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 376-393. Print.
  4. Duggett, Tom. Gothic Romanticism: Architecture, Politics, and Literary Form. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.
  5. Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
  6. “Gothic Fiction.” The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 2007. eBook.
  7. Hume, Robert D. “Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” PMLA 84.2 (1969): 282-290. JSTOR. Web. 21 Dec 2011.
  8. Keats, John. “The Eve of St Agnes.” The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 376-393. Print.
  9. Longueil, Alfred E. “The Word ‘Gothic’ in Eighteenth Century Criticism.” Modern Language Notes 38.8 (1923): 453-460. JSTOR. Web. 3 Jan 2012.
  10. “Romanticism.” The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 2007. eBook.
  11. Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.
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