Blake’s early play with the Gothic

Posted by Matt Foley on June 20, 2009 in Blog tagged with

In The Literature of Terror, the seminal work on the Gothic that began the proceeding academic investigation into what the Gothic literary aesthetic is and what persistent tropes it relies upon, Punter dedicates a chapter to the Gothic and Romanticism. In this over-arching discussion he makes reference to poems by Byron, Coleridge, Percy Shelley and Blake. Famously, Shelley as a youth experimented with the Gothic aesthetic in works including Zastrossi (1810) and it is clear the he was influenced by the Gothic of the mid to late 1790s. However, Blake too experimented with the Gothic aesthetic, even as a teenager, and some of these works appear in his Poetical Sketches (1783) which was actually published much later than the time of composition. Punter makes particular reference to Gwin King of Norway and mentions the ghastly Fair Elenor only to over look it due to what he believed was a crudeness of style.

However, I believe that in spite of its deficiencies it is of interest – even though some of meter is off slightly and the word choice can be clunky, such as the final line of stanza three which ends abruptly with “hands”. This is due primarily to how early it was composed – before Radcliffe by quite some time – and also because of the astounding image of the severed head. The full poem is below and I apologise if I have made any typos:

Fair Elenor by William Blake (1783) [c1768-1777]
The bell struck one, and shook the silent tower;
The graves give up their dead: fair Elenor
Walk’d by the castle gate, and lookèd in.
A hollow groan ran thro’ the dreary vaults.

She shriek’d aloud, and sunk upon the steps,
On the cold stone her pale cheeks. Sickly smells
Of death issue as from a sepulchre,
And all is silent but the sighing vaults.

Chill Death withdraws his hand, and she revives;
Amaz’d, she finds herself upon her feet,
And, like a ghost, thro’ narrow passages
Walking, feeling the cold walls with her hands.

Fancy returns, and now she thinks of bones
And grinning skulls, and corruptible death
Wrapp’d in his shroud; and now fancies she hears
Deep sighs, and sees pale sickly ghosts gliding.

At length, no fancy but reality
Distracts her. A rushing sound, and the feet
Of one that fled, approaches—Ellen stood
Like a dumb statue, froze to stone with fear.

The wretch approaches, crying: `The deed is done;
Take this, and send it by whom thou wilt send;
It is my life—send it to Elenor:—
He’s dead, and howling after me for blood!

`Take this,’ he cried; and thrust into her arms
A wet napkin, wrapp’d about; then rush’d
Past, howling: she receiv’d into her arms
Pale death, and follow’d on the wings of fear.

They pass’d swift thro’ the outer gate; the wretch,
Howling, leap’d o’er the wall into the moat,
Stifling in mud. Fair Ellen pass’d the bridge,
And heard a gloomy voice cry `Is it done?’

As the deer wounded, Ellen flew over
The pathless plain; as the arrows that fly
By night, destruction flies, and strikes in darkness.
She fled from fear, till at her house arriv’d.

Her maids await her; on her bed she falls,
That bed of joy, where erst her lord hath press’d:
`Ah, woman’s fear!’ she cried; `ah, cursèd duke!
Ah, my dear lord! ah, wretched Elenor!

`My lord was like a flower upon the brows
Of lusty May! Ah, life as frail as flower!
O ghastly death! withdraw thy cruel hand,
Seek’st thou that flow’r to deck thy horrid temples?

`My lord was like a star in highest heav’n
Drawn down to earth by spells and wickedness;
My lord was like the opening eyes of day
When western winds creep softly o’er the flowers;

`But he is darken’d; like the summer’s noon
Clouded; fall’n like the stately tree, cut down;
The breath of heaven dwelt among his leaves.
O Elenor, weak woman, fill’d with woe!’

Thus having spoke, she raisèd up her head,
And saw the bloody napkin by her side,
Which in her arms she brought; and now, tenfold
More terrifièd, saw it unfold itself.

Her eyes were fix’d; the bloody cloth unfolds,
Disclosing to her sight the murder’d head
Of her dear lord, all ghastly pale, clotted
With gory blood; it groan’d, and thus it spake:

`O Elenor, I am thy husband’s head,
Who, sleeping on the stones of yonder tower,
Was ‘reft of life by the accursèd duke!
A hirèd villain turn’d my sleep to death!

`O Elenor, beware the cursèd duke;
O give not him thy hand, now I am dead;
He seeks thy love; who, coward, in the night,
Hirèd a villain to bereave my life.’

She sat with dead cold limbs, stiffen’d to stone;
She took the gory head up in her arms;
She kiss’d the pale lips; she had no tears to shed;
She hugg’d it to her breast, and groan’d her last.

It is clear that this is not Blake at his mature and astounding best – however he can be forgiven as it seems, according to some scholars, that this was composed when he between the age of twelve and twenty [c1768-1777] and not published until he was about twenty-six (1783). It therefore significantly predates Radcliffe and the uncanny and horrific reworking of the revealing of the wax effigy actually is an anticipation of the staging in Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Of course, the unveiling that Blake provides here is more horrific, is automated and would not be at home in the Female Gothic:
Which in her arms she brought; and now, tenfold
More terrifièd, saw it unfold itself.
Her eyes were fix’d; the bloody cloth unfolds,
Disclosing to her sight the murder’d head
Of her dear lord, all ghastly pale, clotted
With gory blood; it groan’d, and thus it spake.  [My italics]
The poem seems like a pick of mix of Gothic tropes (the heroine, the revengeful imperative speaking from the dead, the horrific gore, the reference to the ghostly, etc) and yet it predates so much of the Gothic that it is something of an enigma. Would this not be worth further investigation?

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