FRONTISPIECE TO M. G. LEWIS'S TALES OF TERROR
William Wordsworth in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), which was a kind of manifesto for Romantic poetry, complained that "The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse. When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble endeavour made in these volumes to counteract it'. Wordsworth’s desire for plain language and his contempt for the Gothic, however, were contradicted by his colleague Coleridge’s focus upon the supernatural in poems such as 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', 'Christabel' and 'Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream'. The major Romantic poets (even Wordsworth, in The Borderers) owed something to Ann Radcliffe, without whom we probably would not have Keats’s 'Eve of St Agnes' and 'Isabella' or Byron’s Manfred and other poems in which he creates the brooding 'Byronic hero' or indeed Edgar Allan Poe’s 'The Raven'.
Such works are important specimens of the Gothic poetic tradition, but are too well known to need inclusion here. I have selected two almost unknown early works by the major poets: Coleridge’s 'The Mad Monk', which when it was first published was described (presumably by an editor) as being written 'in Mrs. Ratcliffe’s manner'; and Shelley’s 'Song' and 'Ballad', which were written a year or two before his Gothic novel St Irvyne (18089). According to his boyhood friend Medwin, 'Such was the sort of poetry Shelley wrote at this period and it is valuable, inasmuch as it served to shew the disposition and bent of his mind in 1808 and 1809, which ran on bandits, castles, ruined towers, wild mountains, storms and apparitions the Terrific, which according to Burke is the great machinery of the Sublime.'
Two lines from Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants (a political poem about the persecution following the French Revolution that forced the French clergy to flee to England) 'by the blunted light / That the dim moon thro’ painted casements lends' were quoted by Ann Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and are believed to have suggested to Keats the 'Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn' which are used to symbolize the romantic imagination in his 'Ode to a Nightingale'. Keats pretended that any similarity of his work to Gothic literature was superficial: 'In my next Packet as this is one by the way, I shall send you the Pot of Basil, St Agnes eve, and if I should have finished it a little thing call’d the 'eve of St Mark' you see what fine mother Radcliff names I have' (letter, 14 February 1819). But Coleridge, Byron and Shelley literally plagiarized passages from Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.
What we today refer to as the Romantics were known in their own time as the Lake School (referring to England’s Lake District where Wordsworth lived), though we have forgotten their minor members such as Lloyd, Lovell, and Allan Cunningham, and teachers tend to downplay how very many of their poems are concerned with ghosts, witches and fairies. For David Macbeth Moir, delivering lectures at the Edinburgh Philosophical Association in 1850/51, there were two main streams of poetry: the 'Darwinian School' of artificial verse by Erasmus Darwin, Anna Seward, Hayley and the insipid Della Cruscans – versus the 'Lewis School', i.e. the Romantics, 'of which Matthew Gregory Lewis ought to be set down as the leader, and John Leyden, Walter Scott, Coleridge, Southey, James Hogg, Mrs Radcliffe, Anna Maria Porter, and Anne Bannerman, as the chief disciples.' Perhaps it is just as well that today we have largely forgotten once-popular works such as James Montgomery’s 'The Vigil of St. Mark' (1806) and Anne Bannerman’s 'The Perjured Nun' (1802), but the poetry in this section, however 'Gothic' and 'minor', would have been seen as characteristic of the Romantic school by its contemporary readers.
(Copyright 2000, 2014, 2022 Rictor Norton)
1771 The Minstrel by James Beattie
1784 Written on the Seashore by Charlotte Smith
1784 The Emigrants by Charlotte Smith
1787 Invocation to Horror by Hannah Cowley
1790 Superstition: An Ode by Ann Radcliffe
1791 To the Visions of Fancy by Ann Radcliffe
1791 Night by Ann Radcliffe
1795 The Genius of Melancholy by William Ashburnham
1798 To the River Dove by Ann Radcliffe
1798 Ode to Superstition by Nathan Drake
1796 Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine by Matthew Gregory Lewis
1800 The Mad Monk by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
1801 Tales of Terror by Matthew Gregory Lewis
1806 The Vigil of St. Mark by James Montgomery
1807 Song by Percy Bysshe Shelley
1807 Ballad by Percy Bysshe Shelley
1810 The Vampyre by John Stagg
1811 Eugene by Anna Maria Porter
1849 Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe
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