Gothic (Political) Imagination

Posted by Tom Duggett on July 01, 2012 in Guest Blog, Tom Duggett tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thanks to the editors of The Gothic Imagination for inviting me to write a guest blog here during July. The brief from Dale Townshend was completely open – whatever occurs to me under the rubric of The Gothic Imagination. It was my book, Gothic Romanticism: Architecture, Politics, and Literary Form (Palgrave, 2010) that got this conversation going. So some of what I say refers to the research and arguments there (GR, as I’ll call it), and there’s further information on the book’s website. But I’m going to take the licence offered to write freely and at large – taking as my model Coleridge’s notion of the Gothic cathedral built to ‘a plan not distinct from the execution’.

That reference should give you a hint of what comes to me when I think of Gothic Imagination. And in this connection, I should mention in preview that the tail-piece to this month’s blog is already laid out in idea. I’m giving a paper at the Coleridge Conference at the end of the month, and so will double as unofficial self-appointed ‘Gothic imagination’ correspondent while there. Christabel Night’s ‘flaming torch lit walk’ from Coleridge Cottage up to the remains of the 11th century castle, through the lanes of Nether Stowey’, looks to be a likely topic – not to mention the intriguing programme of papers on the most ‘daemonic’ of the Romantics. I hope this’ll be an appropriately dark-glassed ending to my guest-blog – an oblique epitome that ‘talks as it’s most used to do’ …

So – the Gothic Imagination. Here is a flavour of what that is for me:

magazine, 1739:

Methinks there was something respectable in those old hospitable Gothick halls, hung round with the Helmets, Breast-Plates, and Swords of our Ancestors; I entered them with a Constitutional Sort of Reverence and look’d upon those arms with Gratitude, as the Terror of former Ministers and the Check of Kings. Nay, I even imagin’d that I here saw some of those good Swords that has procur’d the Confirmation of Magna Charta, and humbled Spencers and Gavestons … Out old Gothick Constitution had a noble strength and Simplicity in it, which was well enough represented by the bold Arches and the solid Pillars of the Edifices of those Days.

private letter, April 1816:

Suppose the opposition as a body, or take them in classes, the Grenvilles, the Wellesleys, the Foxites, the Burdettites, and let your imagination carry them in procession through Westminster Hall, and let them pass thence into the adjoining Abbey, and give them credit for feeling the utmost and best that they are capable of feeling in connection with these venerable and sacred places, and say frankly whether you would be satisfied with the result. Imagine them to be looking from a green hill over a rich landscape diversified by Spires and Church Towers and hamlets, and all the happy images of English landscape, would their sensations come much nearer what one would desire; in a word have [they] becoming reverence of the English character, and do they value as they ought, and even as their opponents do, the Constitution of the country, in Church and State.

magazine, 1834:

On reaching the water-side, a spectacle at once sublime and appalling busrt upon my eye – St. Stephen’s Chapel in flames, with the House of Lords a little further to the south, and (the sensation which I felt at the sight as an antiquary and a British subject, I shall not easily forget) the gable of Westminster Hall, contiguous to the fire, apparently alight in two or three places! – The wonder unrivalled of Europe, the palladium of the English monarchy … which like a giant of the Gothic age had outlived so many historical events and revolutions, and still fromwned in unimpaired majesty on the generations of modern days … I felt as if a link would be burst asunder in my national existence, and that the history of my native land was about to become, by the loss of this silent but existing witness, a dream of dimly shadowed actors and events.

The Gothic Imagination I’m mainly interested in, then, is the Gothic political imagination. But it’s politics in a primarily imaginative sense. Architecture and literature (space and time) are the poles of its expression; hence the triadic subtitle of my book. The kind of reading I just invited you to do is an example of the imaginative discipline that for me (and, I think, important others before me) is at the heart of Gothic subjectivity. The analogical connections and/or disjointed transmissions that your reading activity supplied between those passages is a measure of the extent of your Gothic subjectivity, and hence of the extent to which the Gothic political imagination as I’ve tried to sketch it, lives on.

My three quotations imply a historical narrative of this Gothic imagination. What changes from 1739 to 1834? I’d suggest an observable inward drift; a naturalizing movement. The analogical me-thinking of Gothic architecture representing the constitution in 1739 becomes, by 1834, a personal national existence of such intricate inward Gothic scaffolding that it threatens to collapse in sympathy with the demise of its ‘giant’ original in the Westminster fire (Turner’s watercolour pictured below). The self-description of the subject as ‘an antiquary and a British subject’ reveals something of the cultural process that makes the change: the antiquarian mindset becomes a model of the virtuous political subject (as Walter Scott and his hero, Jonathan Oldbuck, would doubtless have agreed).

It’s worth revealing at this point – in case you weren’t there already – that the first and third quotations (GM 1 and 2) both come from The Gentleman’s Magazine, an periodical pioneer in the 1730s that was a rag-bag of ‘useless antiquity’ and ‘lingering remains’ in Hazlitt’s view. So there is an observable continuity and change. The Gentleman’s was into volume two of a ‘new series’ by the time of the 1834 fire – in recognition of the reform act that did away with the Gothic constitution in practice. So the 1834 language of ‘personal national existence’ can plausibly be seen as the high-water mark of the naturalized Gothic political imagination; the slight time lag registering the trauma of reform to the antiquarian magazine’s political and historical imagination.

What about the second quotation? It’s not Coleridge, but Wordsworth. I’ve claimed in GR that Wordsworth is the most complete, because the most subterranean, Goth of his age. It’s controversial – perhaps here above all – and I’ll come back to it in another post. But it’s clear, I hope, that what Wordsworth says in the passage above has strong links to the Gentleman’s quotations. Gothic architecture, reverence, imagined historical scenes – it’s all there. But there’s also something different, I think, which also helps explain how GM1 becomes GM2. Wordsworth’s use of Gothic architectural imagery to test patriotism has an unpleasantly invasive quality. The ‘opposition’ are divided, led in procession, and pre-judged in imagination. I argue in GR that this suspicion reflects the political-imaginary paranoia of the 1790s, when the government tried radicals for treason, on the medieval statute’s definition of the crime as ‘imagining the king’s death’. Political ‘reliability’ becomes a matter of intricate and finally unknowable responses to symbolic items, of structures of feeling. In this context, Wordsworth’s turn to poetry looks less like a bold emergence into vision than a reflex response to a deep psychological wound.

While as a Wordsworthian, I wouldn’t want generally to see him in this way, I would suggest that it is in Wordsworth that Gothic architecture and politics finally penetrate the imagination. A deeply distressful inoculation of the imagination occurs. In a pause of deep political silence, a frighteningly ‘gentle shock of mild surprize’ carries ‘far into [the] heart’ the Gothic re-imagination of the subject. To change the metaphor, it’s in Wordsworth that the magic trick – known in the trade as ‘Chinese linking rings’ – is performed once and for all, and the three semi-pervious discursive rings of architecture, politics, and imagination become chained together. It is this (associative) chain that threatens to ‘burst asunder’ in the Gentleman’s Magazine when the material basis of the Gothic political imagination burns down.

But of course it both does and doesn’t. Or, rather, it moves elsewhere, into cultural forms ever proliferating, diluting and saturating as it goes.

Tom Duggett on the Coleridge Summer Conference 2012
part 1
part 2
part 3

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