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The Romantic Period Year 6 English Literature
The English Romantic Period began in 1798 with the publication of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and
ended when Queen Victoria began her 64-year reign in what was to be the Victorian Age (1837-1901). You will also find
publications that mark 1832, the year Sir Walter Scott died, as the end of the Romantic era. Moreover, before 1798,
William Blake was already publishing, and Robert Burns had already died (1796) –it all depends on how you look at it.
One thing is certain, though: English literature spawned many masters and masterpieces in this period. Walter Scott
created the historical novel (e.g. Ivanhoe; The Heart of Midlothian); Mary Shelley combined science fiction, philosophic
vision, and the gothic novel in Frankenstein, and poets like John Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Lord
Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley had bursts of creativity that have influenced and inspired many. This reader is by no
means a full survey of Romantic literature, but I hope you will appreciate the highlights that I have chosen.
Characteristics of Romanticism
In his famous Preface to “Lyrical Ballads’, Wordsworth explained his
poetical concept (Coleridge’s contribution was modest): “The majority of
the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written
chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the
middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic
If the experiment with vernacular language was not enough of a
departure from the norm, the focus on simple, uneducated country
people as the subject of poetry was a signal shift to modern literature. One
of the main themes of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ is the return to the original state
of nature, in which people led a purer and more innocent existence.
Wordsworth subscribed to Rousseau's belief that humanity was essentially good but was corrupted by the influence of
society. This may be linked with the sentiments spreading through Europe just prior to the French Revolution.
Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in
common only a revolt against the prescribed rules of classicism. The basic aims of romanticism were various: a return to
nature and to belief in the goodness of humanity; the rediscovery of the artist as a supremely individual creator; the
development of nationalistic pride; and the exaltation of the senses and emotions over reason and intellect. In fact,
romanticism was a philosophical revolt against rationalism. Sensibility came to supersede reason as the touchstone to life;
the emotional susceptibility of a tender heart was valued more highly than the sound judgment of a cool head. But it must
be noted that the nostalgia which so typified many Romantic writings was a longing for some idyllic past…that perhaps
had never really been.
In the 18th century (Enlightenment), beauty, order, symmetry/balance, and social acceptance were valued –but the
Romantics valued the uncertainty of nature, with its fierce, illogical forces. This was no longer the Age of Reason. People
began to see that man did not dominate nature, as nature was far more powerful than man. In nature, the Romantics see
God. They see themselves as the conduit between the supernatural ‘God’ and the harsh reality of earth. They also discard
the concept of tabula rasa in favour of the Platonic idea of the soul coming from heaven. To William Wordsworth, the
child comes into the world “trailing clouds of glory,” but as he grows, his freedom becomes limited by his experience.
Romantic writers and philosophers saw children as imbued with special powers and a sense of the heaven from which they
These are the keywords of the English Romantic Era:
Imagination Children Nostalgia
Emotion Empathy Passion
Nature the Individual Escapism
What have writers, critics, and philosophers said about Romanticism?
`Romanticism is disease. Classicism is health´. (Goethe)
‘The return to nature’ (Rousseau)
‘Sentimental melancholy. Vague aspiration.’ (Phelps)
‘Liberalism in literature. Mingling the grotesque with the tragic or sublime [forbidden by Classicism]; the complete truth
of life’. (Victor Hugo)
‘The withdrawal from outer experience to concentrate upon inner.’ (Abercrombie)
1 With tabula rasa, John Locke expresses the idea that the mind when it enters the world is nothing and contains nothing. It is merely the blank slate upon which experience begins to “write” the person. As the person matures, he is able to begin to “write” himself, expressing the freedom of the individual to construct the soul. This freedom may be impaired by the way in which early experiences have shaped the person. 2 Spleen is profound (nostalgic) melancholy, comparable to Weltschmerz.
`Emotion rather than reason; the heart opposed to the head’ (Sand)
‘An accentuated predominance of emotional life, provoked or directed by the exercise of imaginative vision’ (Cazamian)
‘A liberation of the less conscious levels of the mind; an intoxicating dreaming. Classicism is control by the conscious
‘Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’ (David Hume)
‘The child is the father to the man.’ (Wordworth)
The historical backdrop to the Romantic movement
American independence (1776); the French revolution (1789); the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815); the ideals of liberty,
equality, and fraternity; and the Industrial revolution (from 1750).
Over the pond
In the United States, Romanticism expressed itself in transcendentalism, which had some basic tenets that were generally
shared by its adherents. The beliefs that God is immanent in each person and in nature and that individual intuition is the
highest source of knowledge led to an optimistic emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, and rejection of traditional
authority. Some of its famous proponents: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Edgar
Allan Poe. More of Poe later!
John Keats (1795-1821)
John Keats (1795-1821) was born in London. He had three siblings: George (1797-1841), Thomas (1799-1818), and
Frances Mary "Fanny" (1803-1889). After leaving school, Keats went on to apprentice with a surgeon. After his father
died in a riding accident (1804), and his mother died of tuberculosis (1810), John and his brothers moved to Hampstead.
Keats was an avid student in the fields of medicine and natural history, but he turned his attentions to the literary works
of such authors as William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Keats had his poems published in the magazines of the day at the encouragement of many, but upon its appearance a
series of personal attacks directed at Keats ensued. That same year Keats met Percy Bysshe Shelley who would also
become a great friend. When Shelley's body was washed ashore after drowning in Italy, a volume of Keats's poetry was
found in his pocket.
In the summer of 1818 he travelled to the Lake District of England and on to Ireland and Scotland on a walking tour with
a friend, Charles Brown. They visited the grave of Robert Burns and reminisced upon John Milton's poetry. While he
was not aware of the seriousness of it, Keats was suffering from the initial stages of the deadly infectious disease
tuberculosis. He cut his trip short and upon return to Hampstead immediately tended to his brother Tom who was then
in the last stages of the disease. After Tom's death in December of 1818, Keats lived with Brown.
Around this time Keats met, fell in love with, and became engaged to eighteen year old Frances "Fanny" Brawne (1800-
1865). He wrote one of his more famous sonnets to her titled "Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art". While
their relationship inspired much spiritual development for Keats, it also proved to be tempestuous, filled with the highs
and lows from jealousy and infatuation of first love. Brown was not impressed and tried to provide some emotional
stability to Keats. Many for a time were convinced that Fanny was the cause of his illness, or, used that as an excuse to
try to keep her away from him. For a while even Keats entertained the possibility that he was merely suffering physical
manifestations of emotional anxieties--but after suffering a haemorrhage he gave Fanny permission to break their
engagement. She would hear nothing of it and by her word provided much comfort to Keats in his last days that she was
ultimately loyal to him. At the beginning of 1820 Keats started to show more pronounced signs of the deadly tuberculosis
that had killed his mother and brother. As was common belief at the time that bleeding a patient was beneficial to
healing, Keats was bled and given opium to relieve his anxiety and pain. He was at times put on a starvation diet, then at
other times prescribed to eat meat and drink red wine to gain strength. Despite these ill-advised good-intentions, and
suffering increasing weakness and fever, Keats was able to emerge from his fugue (memory loss) and organise the
publication of his next volume of poetry.
Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) includes some of his best-known and oft-quoted works:
"Hyperion", "To Autumn", and "Ode To A Nightingale". "Nightingale" evokes all the pain and suffering that Keats
experienced during his short life-time: the death of his mother; the physical anguish he saw as a young apprentice tending
to the sick and dying at St. Guy's Hospital; the death of his brother; and ultimately his own physical and spiritual suffering
in love and illness. Keats lived to see positive reviews of Lamia, but the positivity was not to last long. Keats considered
his last hope of recovery of a rest cure in the warm climes of Italy. As a parting gift Fanny gave him a piece of marble
which she had often clasped to cool her hand. In September of 1820 Keats sailed to Rome with friend and painter Joseph
Severn, who was unaware of his circumstances with Fanny and the gravity of his health.
Keats put on a bold front but it soon became apparent to Severn that he was terminally ill. They stayed in rooms on the
Piazza Navona near the Spanish Steps, and enjoyed the lively sights and sounds of the people and culture, but Keats soon
fell into a deep depression. He longed to end his life and avoid the humiliating physical and mental torments of
tuberculosis3. By early 1821 he was confined to bed. Keats had resolved not to write to Fanny and would not read a
letter from her for fear of the pain it would cause him, although he constantly clasped her marble. During bouts of
coughing, fever, nightmares, Keats also tried to cheer his friend, who held him till the end. He died on 23 February 1821
in Rome, Italy, and now rests in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome near his friend Shelley, who was buried just a year
3 In the past, tuberculosis has been called consumption, because it seemed to consume people from within, with a bloody cough, fever, pallor, and long relentless wasting.
later. During his lifetime and since, John Keats inspired numerous other authors, poets, and artists, and remains one of
the most widely read and studied 19th-century poets.
Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock i had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards4 had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O far a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
4 The River Lethe flowed through the plain of Lethe in Hades. It flowed around the cave of Hypnos where its murmuring induced drowsiness. The shades of the dead were required to drink from its water in order to forget their earthly life.
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast-fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: –do I wake or sleep?
(Locked-in consciousness: effect of protracted use of opium)
William Wordsworth: ‘The World Is Too Much With Us”
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea5,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus6 rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton7 blow his wreathed horn.
5 Lea: meadow 6 Greek sea god capable of taking many shapes 7 another sea god, often depicted as trumpeting on a shell
Type of novel that flourished in the late 18th and early 19th century in England. Gothic novels were mysteries, often
involving the supernatural and heavily tinged with horror, and they were usually set against dark backgrounds of
medieval ruins and haunted castles. Main characteristics:
fear of the triumph of evil over good
fear of triumph of chaos over order
disillusionment with ‘rationality’
elements: haunted houses, ghosts, madness, curses, etc.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is today one of the most widely-read and influential of novels. Interpreted in numerous ways
by each succeeding generation, the story of Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a “monster” and the subsequent power-
struggle between creature and creator, has become one of modern society’s abiding myths. Now seen as a myth
concerning a fear of the potentially destructive power of modern technology and science, the novel in the later
nineteenth century was perceived as a political and social narrative concerning the destructive potential of the conflict
between established power and the newly-emergent working class . The novel has gained its mythic status from
adaptations into other media, originally in stage versions, and, in the twentieth century, in the cinema.
The novel Frankenstein (subtitle: The
Modern Prometheus) was born on 16
June 1816, in the Villa Diodati on the
shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva),
and those present at the birth where
the author, her companion, the poet
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord George
Byron and his physician and friend Dr
Polidori. Byron proposed that each
should come up with a ghost story to
amuse the group during a spell of wet
weather, and Mary, aged a mere 19,
came up with the core of the tale which was then converted into a novel over the months to April 1817. During its
development it took the impress of works which Percy and Mary were reading at the time, notably John Milton’s Paradise
Lost, George Anson’s A Voyage round the World in the Years 1740-44 (1748), Humphry Davy’s Elements of Chemical
Philosophy (1812) – which describes the decomposition of substances by electrolysis –, William Godwin’s first two
novels, Caleb Williams and St. Leon, along with his seminal political treatise, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and
Wollstonecraft’s Vindications of the Rights of Woman. Many other works find intertextual echoes in Frakenstein: evidently
the discovery of the electrical nature of nervous impulses by Luigi Galvani in 1791 is implied throughout, but other more
literary influences include Plutarch’s Lives, P. B. Shelley, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Byron, Wordsworth,
Goldsmith, Dante, Cervantes, Rousseau’s Émile, Goethe’s Sorrows of the Young Werther and Volney’s Ruins: A Survey of the
Revolutions of Empire.
In the version as finally published the central narrative about the scientist Victor Frankenstein, citizen of Geneva, who
makes a man by sewing together parts of dead bodies and then galvanizing them into life, is approached through a framing
story about an explorer called Walton who is bent on a probably-fatal effort to reach the North Pole. Walton’s tale and
Frankenstein’s tale represent similar over-reachers who are so driven by science that they pursue needless or diabolical
objects risking catastrophic effects.
Mary Shelley was three months away from her twentieth birthday when she completed her novel; and yet the confidence
with which she produced such a unique and intense literary creation is quite staggering, and doubly so when we register
that Mary Shelley’s monster was to become a modern archetype, a figure that reminds us that the certainties of the
Christian epoch (Dante’s externalized cosmology of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell) have been replaced by a disturbingly
uncertain secular society in which what is legitimate and what “monstrous” is determined by history and social
convention (or power) rather than by nature and divine authority. In this sense, Mary Shelley’s monster and the novel he
inhabits is a significant moment in that movement we nowadays call Romanticism.
James Whales’s first two adaptations, Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), provide the iconic image of
the monster in the portrayal by Boris Karloff, and it is nowadays difficult to conceive of Mary Shelley’s monster without
Karloff’s lumbering, gigantic presence entering into one’s mind (see video). However it should be noted that Mary
Shelley’s monster, though huge, is also extraordinarily (inhumanly) athletic.
The novel’s cinematic history is now, of course, extraordinarily complex and is worthy of study in its own right Widely
divergent in their distance or proximity to Mary Shelley’s original text, the numerous cinematic versions of Frankenstein
attest to the central and abiding problem posed by the novel – the figure of the monster himself. Alien and yet eminently
human in its needs and desires, terrifyingly other and yet worthy of pity, Mary Shelley’s “monster” is a figure who
demonstrates that monstrosity is a human concept reserved for that which does not fit our cultural and social norms. The
monster learns that it is monstrous from the human world into which it enters, and, as Victor Frankenstein sporadically
realizes, monstrosity is an idea which emanates from those who would figure themselves in opposition to that concept.
Kenneth Branagh’s variously successful Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, which present the monster as a figure in search of
knowledge and companionship, are truer to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s text (see video).
Plot synopsis & fragment Frankenstein
The novel opens with Captain Walton on a ship sailing north of the Arctic Circle. Walton's ship becomes ice-bound, and
as he contemplates his isolation and paralysis, he spots a figure traveling across the ice on a dog sledge. This is Victor
Frankenstein's creature. Soon after he sees the ill Victor Frankenstein himself, and invites him onto his boat. The
narrative of Walton is a frame narrative that allows for the story of Victor to be related. At the same time, Walton's
predicament is symbolically appropriate for Victor's tale of displaced passion and brutalism.
Victor takes over telling the story at this point. Curious and intelligent from a young age, he learns from the works of the
masters of Medieval alchemy, reading such authors as Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus and shunning modern
Enlightenment teachings of natural science (see also Romanticism and the Middle Ages). He leaves his beloved family in
Geneva, Switzerland to study in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany, where he is first introduced to modern science. In a
moment of inspiration, combining his new-found knowledge of natural science with the alchemic ideas of his old
masters, Victor perceives the means by which inanimate matter can be imbued with life.
“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I
collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already
one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-
extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had
endeavoured to form ? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful? - Great God ! His yellow
skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly
whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the
dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole
purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that
far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my
heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my
bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself
on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few
moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept,
indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I
thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking
in the street of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I
embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips,
they became livid with the hue of death; her features
appeared to change, and I thought I held the corpse of
my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her
form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of
the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold
dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it
forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch - the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of
the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a
grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped,
and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the
night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce
the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.” (http://vimeo.com/119817)
He sets about constructing a man—perhaps intended as a companion—using means that Shelley refers to only vaguely.
Subsequent visual interpretations of the story have included the creation of Frankenstein's monster through alchemy, by
the piecing together of corpses, or a combination of the two. In the novel it is stated (chapter 4, volume 1) that he uses
bones from charnel-houses (where corpses were kept at the time).
He intends the creature to be beautiful, but when it awakens he is disgusted. It has yellow, watery eyes, translucent skin,
and is of an abominable size. Victor finds this revolting and although the creature offers him no harm (in fact, it grins at
him and reaches its hands out innocently to its creator), Victor runs out of the room in terror, whereupon the creature
disappears. Shock and overwork cause Victor to take ill for several months. After recovering, in about a year's time, he
receives a letter from home informing him of the murder of his youngest brother William. He departs for Switzerland at
Near Geneva, Victor catches a glimpse of the creature in a thunderstorm among the rocky boulders of the mountains,
and is convinced that it killed William. Upon arriving home he finds Justine, the family's beloved maid, framed for the
murder. Despite Victor's feelings of overwhelming guilt, he does not tell anyone about his horrid creation and Justine is
convicted and executed. To recover from the ordeal, Victor goes hiking into the mountains where he encounters his
"cursed creation" again, this time atop a glacier.
The creature converses with Victor and tells him his story, speaking in strikingly eloquent language. He describes his
feelings first of confusion, then rejection and hate. He explains how he learned to talk by studying a poor peasant family
through a crack in the wall. He performs in secret many kind deeds for this family, but in the end, they drive him away
when they see his appearance. He gets the same response from any human who sees him. The creature confesses that it
was indeed he who killed William and framed Justine, and that he did so out of revenge. But now, the creature only
wants one thing; he begs Victor to create a female companion for him so that he may have companionship.
At first, Victor agrees, but later, he tears up the half-made companion in disgust and madness. In retribution, the
creature kills Clerval, Victor's best friend. On Victor's wedding night, the creature kills his wife. Victor now becomes
the hunter: he pursues the creature into the Arctic ice, though in vain. Near exhaustion, he is stranded when an iceberg
breaks away, carrying him out into the ocean. At that moment, Captain Walton's ship arrives and he is rescued.
Walton assumes the narration again, describing a temporary recovery in Victor's health, allowing him to relate his
extraordinary story. However Victor's health soon fails, and he dies. Unable to convince his shipmates to continue north
and bereft the charismatic Frankenstein, Walton is forced to turn back towards England under the threat of mutiny.
Finally, the creature boards the ship and finds Victor dead, and greatly laments what he has done to his maker. He vows
to commit suicide. He leaves the ship by leaping through the cabin window onto the ice, and is never seen again.
Edgar Allan Poe 1809 - 1849
The year 1827, which saw the publication of Cooper’s The Prairie, also witnessed the appearance of “Tamerlane”, the first
volume of poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Poet, critic, prolific writer of prose-tales, perhaps the originator of the detective-
story, Poe was never in his lifetime held in such esteem as “the American Walter Scott”, as Cooper has been called.
Though by the time of the publication of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) he had won a measure of critical
recognition, and The Raven and Other Poems (1845)
further strengthened his growing reputation, it was
in fact not in his own country, or in Britain, but in
France that Poe’s fame and influence were greatest.
There the poets Beaudelaire and Mallarme and the
symbolist poets saw in him one of the forerunners of
modern literature, whose aesthetic ideas showed a
great affinity to their own.
In America and Britain it was not until the twentieth
century, partly through the influence these French
poets in their turn exercised on such poets as Eliot
and Pound, that critics came to see that Poe was
more than just a writer of Gothic horror stories, and
of some highly Romantic and often excessively
melodious poems without much intellectual
contents. And even in this century there has been
much disagreement about his merits. His work has been called “skilful, marvellously constructed and dead”, or “cold and
dehumanized”; his obsession with death has been commented on; his aesthetic theories have been considered
questionable, mediocre and not always consistent.
Yet in the development of American literature Poe would seem to occupy a place of no mean importance. It was he who
first brought to American letters the high seriousness and concern with aesthetic principles of the conscious and devoted
artist, developing through many reviews an aesthetic theory of his own, which he finally summed up in The Philosophy of
Composition (1846) and The Poetic Principle (1849). Stressing the need for technical perfection and discipline, he argues
that it is the poet’s sole task to create beauty, or “harmony, perfection, all, in this case, synonymous terms.” This concern
with order and harmony links Poe’s aesthetic closely to the cosmological essay “Eureka, A Prose Poem” (1848), in which he
sets out to discover in the universe the unity, the harmony and symmetry lost in a chaotic, time-bound world. It is the
poet’s aim to present man with a vision of this eternal unity, this “supernatural beauty - which is not afforded the soul by
any existing collocation of earth’s forms.”
In doing so the poet is not concerned with the moral sense, or with the intellect, for the truths he deals with are not
those of the intellect, but of the imagination and intuition. The poet’s truth is beauty, and the beauty he strives for is
indefinite, and partakes of the nature of music, which is the purest kind of poetry. Language can do no more than suggest
hidden meanings. Though in one of his reviews Poe argued that “the unity of effect (...) to the artist is worth all the
allegory in the world”, it seems clear that such views must lead to some forms of allegory or symbolism. And in his best
poems and tales we should expect to find both elements.
• (American) Romantic Movement
• Inventor of the detective genre
• Contributed to the emergence of science fiction
• One of the first to try and make a living out of writing > hence difficult life (also lack of copyright control)
1 The descent into madness… (frequently due to alcohol)
2 Thin line between love and hate (the urge to destroy what you love > well, we’ve all been there,
haven’t we?) >> love and hate for yourself, others
3 The self vs. the alter ego
“Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason
than because he knows he should not?”
Art was to exist for its own sake, for its own essence or beauty. The artist was not to be concerned
about morality or utility or even the pleasure that a work might bring to its audience.
The Black Cat
For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed
would I be to expect it in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet mad am I not - and very surely do I
not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the
world plainly, succintly, and without comment, a series of merehousehold events. In their consequences these events
have terrified - have tortured - have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me they have presented
little but horror - to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found
which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace - some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than
my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very
natural causes and effects.
From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so
conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents
with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feedingand caressing
them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and in my manhood I derived from it one of my principal
sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the
trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and
self-sacrificing love of a brute which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry
friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.
I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality
for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, gold-fish, a fine
dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat. This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and
sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with
superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise.
Not that she was ever serious upon this point, and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it happens just
now to be remembered.
Pluto - this was the cat's name - was my favourite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went
about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.
Our friendship lasted in this manner for several years, during which my general temperament and character - through the
instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance - had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I
grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use
intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets of course were made to feel
the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto however, I still retained sufficient regard
strain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by
accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me - for what disease is like Alcohol ! -
and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish - even Pluto began to
experience the effects of my ill-temper.
One night returning home much intoxicated from one of my haunts about town, I fancied that the cat avoided my
presence. I seized him, when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The
fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed at once to take its flight from
my body, and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame. I took from my
waistcoatpocket a penknife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the
socket ! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.
When reason returned with the morning - when I had slept off the fumes of the night's debauch - I experienced a
sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty, but it was at best a feeble and
equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory
of the deed.
In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he
no longer appeared to be suffering any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in
extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old heart left as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the
part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my
final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not
more sure that my soul lives than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart - one of the
indivisible primary faculties or sentiments that gave direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times,
found himself committing a vile or a silly action for no other reason than because he knows he should not ? Have we not a
perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to
be such ? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex
itself - to offer violence to its own nature - to do wrong for the wrong's sake only - that urged me to continue, and finally
to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in cold blood, I slipped a noose
about its neck, and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest
remorse at my heart; hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so
jeopardise my immortal soul as to place it, if such a thing were possible, even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of
the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused from my sleep by the cry of fire. The curtains
of my bed were in flames. The whole house was
blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a
servant, and myself made our escape from the
conflagration. The destruction was complete. My
entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I
resigned myself thenceforward to despair.
I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a
sequence of cause and effect between the disaster and
the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts, and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day
succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls with one exception had fallen in. This exception was found in a
compartment wall, not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of
my bed. The plastering had here in great measure resisted the action of the fire, a fact which I attributed to its having
been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a
particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention. The words "strange !", "singular !" and other similar
expressions, excited my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a
gigan-tic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal's neck.
When I first beheld this apparition - for I could scarcely regard it as less - my wonder and my terror were extreme. But
at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the
alarm of fire this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd, by some one of whom the animal must have been cut
from the tree and thrown through an open window into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of
arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the
freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames and the ammonia from the carcase, had then accomplished the
portraiture as I saw it.
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it
did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of the
cat, and during this period there came back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so
far as to regret the loss of the animal, and to look about me among the vile haunts which I now habitually frequented for
another pet of the same species, and of somewhat similar appearance, with which to supply its place.
One night as I sat half-stupefied in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object,
reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the
apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise
was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a
black cat - a very large one - fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one; but this cat had a
large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.
Upon my touching him he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared delighted with my
notice. This then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord, but this
person made no claim to it - knew nothing of it - had never seen it before.
I continued my caresses, and when I prepared to go home the animal evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted
it to do so, occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once,
and became immediately a great favourite with my wife.
For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated, but - I
know not how or why it was - its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed. By slow degrees these
feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided the creature; a certain sense of shame, and
the rememberance of my former deed of cruelty, preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks,
strike or otherwise violently ill use it, but gradually - very gradually - I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing,
and to flee silently from its odious presence as from the breath of a pestilence.
What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast was the discovery, on the morning after I brought it home, that, like
Pluto, it also had been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to my wife, who, as I
have already said, possessed in a high degree that humanity of feeling which had once been my dis-tinguishing trait, and
the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures.
With my aversion of the cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a
pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my
chair or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet
and thus nearly throw me down, or fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber in this manner to my breast.
At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my
former crime, but chiefly - let me confess it at once - by absolute dread of the beast.
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil - and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost
ashamed to own - yes, even in this felon's cell, I am almost ashamed to own - that the terror and horror with which this
animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had
called my attention more than once to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which
consitituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember
that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite, but by slow degrees - degrees nearly imperceptible,
and which for a long time my reason struggled to reject as fanciful - it had at length assumed a rigorous distinctness of
outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name - and for this above all I loathed and dreaded,
and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared - it was now, I say the image of a hideous -of a ghastly thing- of the
GALLOWS ! - O, mournful and terrible engine of horror and of crime - of agony and of death !
And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere umanity. And a brute beast - whose fellow I had
contemptuously destroyed - a brute beast - to work out for me - for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God - so
much of insufferable woe ! Alas ! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of rest any more ! During the former
the creature left me no moment alone; and in the latter I started hourly from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot
breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight - an incarnate night-mare that I had no power to shake off -
incumbent eternally upon my heart !
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts
became my sole intimates - the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred
of all things and of all mankind; while from the sudden frequent and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now
blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas ! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One day she accompanied me upon some household errand into the cellar of the old building which our poverty
compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me
to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting in my wrath the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a
blow at the animal, which of course would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But this blow was
arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from
her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot without a groan.
The hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith and with entire deliberation to the task of concealing the body.
I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the
neighbours. Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments and
destroying them by fire. At another I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about
casting it in the well in the yard - about packing it in a box, as if merchandise, with the usual arrangements, and so get-
ting a porter to take it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I
determined to wall it up in the cellar - as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.
For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely constructed and had lately been plastered
throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in
one of the walls was a projection caused by a false chimney or fireplace, that had been filled up and made to resemble the
rest of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the
whole up as before, so that no eye could detect anything suspicious.
And in this calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crow-bar I easily dislodged the bricks, and having carefully
deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while with little trouble I re-laid the whole
structure as it originallystood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair with every possible precaution, I prepared a
plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this I very carefully went over the new brickwork. When
I had finished I felt satisfied that all was right. The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed.
The rubbish on the floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself - "Here
at last, then, my labour has not been in vain."
My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness, for I had at length firmly
resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet with it at that moment there could have been no doubt of its fate, but
it appeared that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger, and forebore to present itself in
my present mood. It is impossible to describe or to imagine the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the
detested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not make its appearance during the night - and thus for one night at
least since its introduction into the house I soundly and tranquilly slept; ay, slept even with the burden of murder upon
my soul !
The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a freeman. The monster,
in terror, had fled the premises for ever ! I should behold it no more ! My happiness was supreme ! The guilt of my dark
deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had
been instituted - but of course nothing was to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.
Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came very unexpectedly into the house, and proceeded
again to make rigorous investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I
felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers bade me accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner
unexplored. At length, for the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart
beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my
bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied, and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart
was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their
assurance of my guiltlessness.
"Gentlemen," I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, "I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all
health, and a little more courtesy. By-the-by, gentlemen, this - this is a very well constructed house." (In the rabid desire
to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.) - "I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These
walls - are you going, gentlemen ? - these walls are solidly put together;" and here through the mere frenzy of bravado, I
rapped heavily with a cane which I held in my hand upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the
corpse of the wife of my bosom.
But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the archfiend ! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk
into silence than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb ! - by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the
sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anoma-lous and
inhuman - a howl - a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell,
conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in their damnation.
Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the
stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next a dozen stout arms were toiling at the
wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the
spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had
seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up
within the tomb !