ON THE SUPERNATURAL IN POETRY (c. 1802/1826)
ANN RADCLIFFE (17641823)
The following critical essay was found among Ann Radcliffe’s papers after her death. It was written in the winter of 1802/3, and possibly revised between 1811 and 1815, as it contains passages copied verbatim from her travel journals describing visits to Warwick Castle in 1802, Penshurst in 1811 and Windsor Castle between 1812 and 1815. Ostensibly designed to form part of the Introduction to her posthumously published novel Gaston de Blondeville, it nevertheless reads like a carefully composed formal essay, summing up and defending her technique. The essay is in the form of a dialogue between the romantic enthusiast Willoughton (Mr. W) and the debunking philistine Simpson (Mr. S), who have stopped to examine the ruins of Kenilworth on their way from Coventry to Warwick just as did Mrs Radcliffe and her husband. Radcliffe systematically develops a theory of ‘correspondent scenery’ or ‘accordant circumstances’, the eighteenth-century critical terms characterizing writing that parallels a psychological mood (or ‘corresponding feeling’) without directly describing it. Although, in actual practice, Radcliffe uses the words ‘terror’ and ‘horror’ interchangeably in her novels, she has considered the subject in the light of the public reaction to such novels, and seems to be defending sensibility and the sublime ‘terror’ of the Radcliffe School from sensationalism and the obscene ‘horror’ of the Lewis School. She defends Gilpin’s principle that obscurity is necessary for the achievement of terror and the sublime. She does not mention Richard Payne Knight or Uvedale Price, but she does refer to ‘the new school’, so it is probable that she has kept up with contemporary aesthetic discussion of ‘the picturesque’.
Copyright © 2000, 2022 Rictor Norton
One of our travellers began a grave dissertation on the illusions of the imagination. ‘And not only on frivolous occasions,’ said he, ‘but in the most important pursuits of life, an object often flatters and charms at a distance, which vanishes into nothing as we approach it; and ’tis well if it leave only disappointment in our hearts. Sometimes a severer monitor is left there.’
who would have thought of reducing them to mere human beings, by attiring them not only like the inhabitants of the earth, but in the dress of a particular country, and making them downright Scotch-women? thus not only contradicting the very words of Macbeth, but withdrawing from these cruel agents of the passions all that strange and supernatural air which had made them so affecting to the imagination, and which was entirely suitable to the solemn and important events they were foretelling and accomplishing. Another improvement on Shakspeare is the introducing a crowd of witches thus arrayed, instead of the three beings ‘so withered and so wild in their attire.’ ‘What are these,
About the latter part of this sentence, W, as he was apt to do, thought aloud, and Mr. S said, ‘I, now, have sometimes considered, that it was quite suitable to make Scotch witches on the stage, appear like Scotch women. You must recollect that, in the superstition concerning witches, they lived familiarly upon the earth, mortal sorcerers, and were not always known from mere old women; consequently they must have appeared in the dress of the country where they happened to live, or they would have been more than suspected of witchcraft, which we find was not always the case.’
‘You are speaking of old women, and not of witches,’ said
W laughing, ‘and I must more than suspect you of crediting that obsolete superstition which destroyed so many wretched, yet guiltless persons, if I allow your argument to have any force. I am speaking of the only real witch the witch of the poet; and all our notions and feelings connected with terror accord with his. The wild attire, the look not of this earth, are essential traits of supernatural agents, working evil in the darkness of mystery. Whenever the poet’s witch condescends, according to the vulgar notion, to mingle mere ordinary mischief with her malignity, and to become familiar, she is ludicrous, and loses her power over the imagination; the illusion vanishes. So vexatious is the effect of the stage-witches upon my mind, that I should probably have left the theatre when they appeared, had not the fascination of Mrs. Siddons’s influence so spread itself over the whole play, as to overcome my disgust, and to make me forget even Shakspeare himself; while all consciousness of fiction was lost, and his thoughts lived and breathed before me in the very form of truth. Mrs. Siddons, like Shakspeare, always disappears in the character she represents, and throws an illusion over the whole scene around her, that conceals many defects in the arrangements of the theatre. I should suppose she would be the finest Hamlet that ever appeared, excelling even her own brother in that character; she would more fully preserve the tender and refined melancholy, the deep sensibility, which are the peculiar charm of Hamlet, and which appear not only in the ardour, but in the occasional irresolution and weakness of his character the secret spring that reconciles all his inconsistencies. A sensibility so profound can with difficulty be justly imagined, and therefore can very rarely be assumed. Her brother’s firmness, incapable of being always subdued, does not so fully enhance, as her tenderness would, this part of the character. The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpnesses gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.’
‘I still think,’ said Mr. S, without attending to these remarks, ‘that, in a popular superstition, it is right to go with the popular notions, and dress your witches like the old women of the place where they are supposed to have appeared.’
‘As far as these notions prepare us for the awe which the poet designs to excite, I agree with you that he is right in availing himself of them; but, for this purpose, every thing familiar and common should be carefully avoided. In nothing has Shakspeare been more successful than in this; and in another case somewhat more difficult that of selecting circumstances of manners and appearance for his supernatural beings, which, though wild and remote, in the highest degree, from common apprehension, never shock the understanding by incompatibility with themselves never compel us, for an instant, to recollect that he has a licence for extravagance. Above every ideal being is the ghost of Hamlet, with all its attendant incidents of time and place. The dark watch upon the remote platform, the dreary aspect of the night, the very expression of the officer on guard, ‘the air bites shrewdly; it is very cold;’ the recollection of a star, an unknown world, are all circumstances which excite forlorn, melancholy and solemn feelings, and dispose us to welcome, with trembling curiosity, the awful being that draws near; and to indulge in that strange mixture of horror, pity, and indignation, produced by the tale it reveals. Every minute circumstance of the scene between those watching on the platform, and of that between them and Horatio preceding the entrance of the apparition, contributes to excite some feeling of dreariness, or melancholy, or solemnity, or expectation, in unison with and leading on toward that high curiosity and thrilling awe with which we witness the conclusion of the scene.’. . .
‘How happens it then,’ said Mr S, ‘that objects of terror sometimes strike us very forcibly, when introduced into scenes of gaiety and splendour, as, for instance, in the Banquet scene in Macbeth?’
‘They strike, then, chiefly by the force of contrast,’ replied W; ‘but the effect, though sudden and strong, is also transient; it is the thrill of horror and surprise, which they then communicate rather than the deep and solemn feelings excited under more accordant circumstances and left long upon the mind. Who ever suffered for the ghost of Banquo, the gloomy and sublime kind of terror, which that of Hamlet calls forth? though the appearance of Banquo, at the high festival of Macbeth, not only tells us that he is murdered, but recalls to our minds the fate of the gracious Duncan, laid in silence and death by those who, in this very scene, are revelling in his spoils. There, though deep pity mingles with our surprise and horror, we experience a far less degree of interest, and that interest too of an inferior kind. The union of grandeur and obscurity, which Mr. Burke describes as a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror, and which causes the sublime, is to be found only in Hamlet; or in scenes where circumstances of the same kind prevail.’
‘That may be,’ said Mr S, ‘and I perceive you are not one of those who contend that obscurity does not make any part of the sublime.’ ‘They must be men of very cold imaginations,’ said W, ‘with whom certainty is more terrible than surmise. Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. I apprehend, that neither Shakspeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first [error for ‘the latter’], respecting the dreaded evil?’
‘But what say you to Milton’s image
‘As an image, it certainly is sublime; it fills the mind with an idea of power, but it does not follow that Milton intended to declare the feeling of horror to be sublime; and after all, his image imparts more of terror than of horror; for it is not distinctly pictured forth, but is seen in glimpses through obscuring shades, the great outlines only appearing, which excite the imagination to complete the rest; he only says, ‘sat horror plumed;’ you will observe, that the look of horror and the other characteristics are left to the imagination of the reader; and according to the strength of that, he will feel Milton’s image to be either sublime or otherwise. Milton, when he sketched it, probably felt, that not even his art could fill up the outline, and present to other eyes the countenance which his ‘mind’s eye’ gave to him. Now, if obscurity has so much effect on fiction, what must it have in real life, when to ascertain the object of our terror, is frequently to acquire the means of escaping it. You will observe, that this image though indistinct or obscure, is not confused.’‘On his brow sat horror plumed.’
‘How can any thing be indistinct and not confused?’ said Mr. S.
‘Ay, that question is from the new school,’ replied W; ‘but recollect, that obscurity, or indistinctness, is only a negative, which leaves the imagination to act upon the few hints that truth reveals to it; confusion is a thing as positive as distinctness, though not necessarily so palpable; and it may, by mingling and confounding one image with another, absolutely counteract the imagination, instead of exciting it. Obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate; confusion, by blurring one image into another, leaves only a chaos in which the mind can find nothing to be magnificent, nothing to nourish its fears or doubts, or to act upon in any way; yet confusion and obscurity are terms used indiscriminately by those, who would prove, that Shakspeare and Milton were wrong when they employed obscurity as a cause of the sublime, that Mr. Burke was equally mistaken in his reasoning upon the subject, and that mankind have been equally in error, as to the nature of their own feelings, when they were acted upon by the illusions of those great masters of the imagination, at whose so potent bidding, the passions have been awakened from their sleep, and by whose magic a crowded Theatre has been changed to a lonely shore, to a witch’s cave, to an enchanted island, to a murderer’s castle, to the ramparts of an usurper, to the battle, to the midnight carousal of the camp or the tavern, to every various scene of the living world.’ . . .
[SOURCE: Ann Radcliffe, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, New Monthly Magazine, 16 (1826), pp. 14552]
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