On Gothic Romanticism

Posted by Tom Duggett on August 29, 2012 in Tom Duggett, Uncategorized tagged with ,

The bridges catch silent fire and swallow themselves into the sea. Silence speaks the language of size. So far out, the explosions come only as a faint rumble. But as all lines of communication go down, another resonance carries direct, without diminution or loss, on the historical ether of pure nothing. In Gotham City’s crashing bridges, there, once more, are the falling towers.

My book, Gothic Romanticism, is about British poetry at the turn of the nineteenth century. It’s about Wordsworth’s world-historical epic poem, The Recluse, and its dense social context. But it opens at ground zero, after 9/11, among the ‘trees’ at the base of the ruins, and one of its aims is to offer a long context and a history for those events and their cultural aftermath. More than an analogy and something less than a precedent, the Gothic culture of Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century provides in Gothic Romanticism a dark glass in which to behold the decade after 9/11. If you wanted an image of the cultural work that the book does, you could do worse than to summon up Nolan’s architectural emblem of ‘Gotham’s reckoning’, and re-enact Maurice Levy’s national imaginary psychodrama of Gothic origins, with Britons staring dumbstruck at the French Revolution, with the word forming unconsciously on their lips.


The movie’s consumptive bridges are the real bridges of New York, some of whose pointed arches inspired and found an echo in the design of the world trade center – whose twin towers similarly seemed to the watching world to flame out and fall in impossible silence – upon a scale and with an audience too vast to make a sound. And it’s that sense of cultural and historical over-determination, of narratives already immanent within themselves, of events whose narrative importance is subordinate to the structures of feeling that they evoke, and a scalar structure that operates and is graspable only at the failing outer limits of the sense – seen in the soundless panorama; heard in the eye-quieting bituminous swell of Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme – that I want to say is summed up in the single word ‘Gothic’.

I have described Gothic Romanticism as a work of ‘literary archaeology,’ aimed at exposing the common foundations of Romanticism and the Gothic. To extend the metaphor, the book seeks to recover the specifically Gothic features located in the Romantic level of the wider and deeper site of Gothic culture. Archaeology clearly involves recovering what has been lost, and has been cut off from the current of history. But the recovered artefact or assemblage would (I hope) be supposed to lose its inertia upon recovery. Sue Zlosnik’s generous review of my book closes by suggesting, on the contrary, that its archaeological exercise imposed strict historical and disciplinary limits:

History has perhaps delivered its verdict on the Lake Poets’ Gothic enterprise in that their use of the term now has to be understood through “literary archeology.” Current usage, while subject to constant change, is rather different. It is a sign of our own critical times that the “horrid novels” identified by Jane Austen have had more of a critical resurgence than the lesser read works of Wordsworth. (BARS Bulletin & Review 39, 41-2)

Yes. But critical times, no less than usage, are subject to change. Canons shift, formations emerge and disappear, and attempts to read ‘history’s verdict’ grow erratic. For a conception of Gothic studies focused on ‘horrid novels’, books like mine may be simply a shiver in the earth at the impact of the digger’s blade. But they may also tremble into a historicist groundswell that will alter the disciplinary landscape.

At a time when America, rocked back upon its heels after headlong flight, sees history move with visible motion its diurnal round, scholarly arguments over the Gothic have wider significance. Gothicism, understood as it would have been by Thomas Percy, Anna Barbauld, and Wordsworth himself, as pervasive historicism, is now at the leading cultural edge, and the conventional forms of Gothic studies start to look passé. For James Mackintosh, the Romantic revolution had inaugurated a ‘second Gothic’ poetry. Now, perhaps, against the backdrop of the fractured American cosmopolis, a new Gothic is rising. This is Gothicism as Gothic Romanticism understands it – actively social, politically imaginative and deep-cultural. Christopher Nolan’s ‘dark knight’ films, whose visual realism carries the heft of their political imagination, ride the crest of a towering cultural wave coming in. And in this third Gothic moment, it makes new sense to look back to an alternative ancestor, a suspended alternative narrative of Gothic descent. Nor should we be surprised to find him in the supposed arch-anti-Goth, Wordsworth, and his art – as we have known it all along – of the natural supernatural.

Gothic Romanticism: Architecture, Politics, and Literary Form, winner of the MLA Prize for Independent Scholars 2010, will be reissued in paperback by Palgrave Macmillan, 27 November 2012

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