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Haunting the Romantics: An Exploration of Ghosts in Romantic Writings

Illustration of 'The Fated Hour' from the Tales of the Dead (1813), in which the 'Death-Bride' under discussion here is included.

When playful lady Orra idly converses with her faithful maids in Joanna Baillie’s play ‘Orra’ (1851), Cathrina mentions the story of Count Hugo of Brunier’s castle, ‘who slew the hunter knight’. As a tale ‘of ghosts and spirits’, the haunting narrative intrigues Orra and she asks to hear it, curiously commenting on how ‘there is a joy in fear’, as ‘when the cold blood shoots through every vein’:

When every pore upon my shrunken skin

A knotted knoll becomes, and to mine ears

Strange inward sounds awake, and to mine eyes

Rush stranger tears. (p. 174)[i]

Indeed, the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century saw a prolific rise of the literature of fear, and whether real or imaginary, ghosts and other terror-inspiring creatures abounded in the writings of the period. On the 19th of August 1797, the self-proclaimed ‘JACOBIN NOVELIST’ sardonically observed the rise of a prevalent terror literature, which, as he says, even a lady’s maid ‘may be able to compose’ if she possesses the necessary ingredients to cook up a Gothic novel, eerie atmosphere and obscure ghostly figures included. In this essay titled ‘The Terrorist System of Novel-Writing’ (1797), then, the writer refers to the huge popularity of Gothic literature, especially with ‘the assistance of a circulating library’, which made accessible an unimaginable amount of scary literary endeavours that proliferated the devices used by novelists like Ann Radcliffe.[ii]

William Wordsworth may have reduced the inventions of the period into the ‘sickly and stupid German tragedies’ and ‘frantic novels’ that he condemned in his Lyrical Ballads (1800), but it is evident that both he and a great number of other male and female Romantic poets profusely read Gothic writings, adopting and adapting Gothic thematology into their own literary oeuvre.[iii] Ghosts and haunting is one prevalent theme. Ghosts abound in Romantic literature, from the allegedly real ghosts of Baillie’s Orra and the ‘forms of horror’ in her poem ‘To Fear’, to Blake’s spectral visitations, and Coleridge’s uniquely personal relationship with spectres.[iv] Blake recorded the appearance of ghostly figures in his ‘Visionary Heads’ series of sketches for John Varley’s Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828), and Wordsworth’s poetry can be seen as a poetry of ghosts as well, as in poems like ‘The Haunted Tree’ (1820) and the ‘troubled ghost’ that is said to upset the earth around it with its ghastly story.[v]

In the case of Mary Robinson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom suffered from the ambiguous effects of opium, ghostly visions of the imagination were often the source of great fear and anxiety. Coleridge confesses to his friend Thomas Poole that ‘Frequently have I … seen armies of ugly things bursting in upon me’, and that the four angels of his dreams were protecting him from them (p. 348).[vi] More often than not, the description of these phantoms of the imagination would be accompanied by accounts of physical fear and a haunting sense of inner anguish, as if the ghosts reflected Coleridge’s deepest anxieties. In The Pains of Sleep (1803), Coleridge refers to ‘shapes and thoughts that tortured me’ (ll. 17), and in his Ode to the Departing Year (1796), he laments that ‘the dream of night / Renews the phantom to my sight’ (ll. 103-4).[vii] Poems like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Christabel (1816) would also echo this sense of haunting that was so personal to Coleridge.[viii]

However, it is interesting to see how both Coleridge and Robinson use the word ‘phantom’ to describe their ghostly visitations. In her ‘Stanzas Written After Successive Nights of Melancholy Dreams’ (1793), Robinson addresses the ‘airy PHANTOMS’ that come ‘prowling in the murky hour / round the fibres of my brain’ (ll. 1, 3, 5).[ix] The word ‘phantom’, accompanied by a description of acute physiological fear and intense brain activity, paradoxically neutralises the potential threat of the kind of physical ghost that we see in the figure of the Bleeding Nun in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796).[x] Rather, Robinson, like Coleridge, stresses the imaginary nature of the phantoms as products of ‘the fibres of my brain’, relegating them to aerial appearances of the imagination. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘phantom’ is a ‘thing (usually with human form)’ that ‘appears to the sight or other sense, but has no material substance’.[xi] On the other hand, tales of horror like ‘The Bleeding Nun’ from Lewis’s The Monk are described in graphic detail:

It was the Bleeding Nun! It was my lost Companion! Her face was still veiled, but She no longer held her Lamp and dagger. She lifted up her veil slowly. What a sight presented itself to my startled eyes! I beheld before me an animated Corse. Her

countenance was long and haggard; Her cheeks and lips were bloodless; The paleness of death was spread over her features, and her eyeballs fixed stedfastly [sic] upon me were lustreless and hollow. (p. 124)

Lewis’s employment of the supernatural turned the belief in a Radcliffean rational explanation of ghosts upside down, thus prompting castigating reviews by proponents of obscurity in the Gothic like Coleridge. Radcliffe’s famous distinction between terror and horror in ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826) is unfolded in the context of a dialogue about the appearances of ghosts in Shakespeare, and her handling of ghosts in novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)) disperses ghostly horrors by building expectation only to dissolve the horror of superstitious maids like Annette by explaining supernatural occurrences.[xii]

Real or imaginary, ghosts persisted in writings of the Romantic period. Mary Robinson’s employment of the supernatural is exemplified by such works like ‘The Haunted Beach’ (1806) with the ghost-mariner in torment, and her novel Hubert de Sevrac (1796), where Mademoiselle de Sevrac finds herself trapped in the Gothic setting of Palerma’s monastery, and the fear of the supernatural that tortures her.[xiii] Writers like Anne Bannerman worked on what can be seen as variations of stories like ‘The Bleeding Nun’ in her Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (1802).[xiv] Indeed, the figure of the veiled ghostly figure is repeated in Bannerman’s poems like ‘The Dark Ladie’ and ‘The Perjured Nun’, where the veiled female is described in the context of supernatural mystery and obscurity, but also of fear and agency through revenge.[xv] These women ghost story writers, as Makala Edmundson observes, emphasise ‘the dead, vengeful revenant’ rather than ‘the living, innocent Gothic heroine’ as the character that reconfigures female identity (p. 24) through fear and action.[xvi]

In ‘The Perjured Nun’, for instance, Bannerman builds expectation by matching the description of the nun’s ghostly approach with a very accurate description of a body in fear, in this case the body of the beholder. In ‘The Dark Ladie’, the knights stare with ‘chill amaze’ at the mystery lady of the feast, and ‘shudder’d’ (pp. 5-6). It is only in Bannerman’s poem that a detailed description of the lady’s story is fully unravelled, being rather subsumed by Coleridge’s former ominous mention of the dark lady in his ‘Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie’, published, as Adriana Craciun contends, ‘in the same journal [Edinburgh Magazine] one month earlier’ (p. 165).[xvii] According to Craciun, Bannerman’s ‘poem … replies to Coleridge’s call for a sister tale by avenging the seduction in his own poem, and its seductive misogyny that promised a lamentable tale of yet another fallen woman’ (p. 165). In ‘The Dark Ladie’, the ghost is the protagonist and an agent of fear, pledging the knights ‘[t]hat in their hearts, and thro’ their limbs, / No pulses could be found’(p. 7). The ghost’s story comes to the forefront of the narrative, and the body turns into a site of power by being the repository of fear and death. Likewise, the language used to describe such physiological reaction, which intensifies upon the nun’s getting closer in ‘The Perjured Nun’, is centred on the body: the ‘listening ear’ meets a ‘pulse’ that ‘leaps now thro’ her burning brow’ (p. 45), the body is ‘cold’ and stiff, and there are numerous pauses/inability to move in dreadful expectation of something supernatural. In fear, the body is presented as drained of ‘blood’, which seems to have ‘rush’d back’ the moment Geraldine (which is an interesting use of name, given Coleridge’s supernatural Geraldine in Christabel), the female character faced with the ghost, decides to take courage.

The function of the nun is directly connected with the unfolding of a dreadful tale about the inconstancy of Geraldine’s lover, and her ominous appearance is foregrounded, as in the case of the Bleeding Nun, by the tolling of the clock. Similarly, the ghost in Bannerman’s ‘The Dark Ladie’, ‘clad in ghastly white’ like a ghost-bride, ‘And veiled to the feet’, withdrew her penetrating gaze from the knights at the feast only after the ‘midnight clock had toll’d’. The same tolling of a bell invited Sir Bertrand into his chilling encounter with the ghost of the castle in Anna Letitia Aikin’s earlier ‘Sir Bertrand; a Fragment’ (1764), and it is the self-same device Bannerman uses to create suspense in typical Radcliffean fashion, only to mix it with the horror of a speaking ghost that inflicts curses on the guests at the feast.[xviii] John Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1819) re-writes this theme rather more obscurely in the context of a dream, where a semi-ghost dame curses knights into a horrific loop of endless loitering.[xix]

There are probably hundreds of literary influences on ghost narratives of the Romantic period, but stories like Bannerman’s ‘The Dark Ladie’ and Baillie’s ‘The Storm-Beat Maid’ (Poems, 1790) strangely echo a story called ‘The Death Bride’ from Fantasmagoriana (1813), a French collection of German ghost stories famously read by the Shelleys, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont at Byron’s abode in Switzerland called Villa Diodati in 1816, the Year without Summer.[xx] This is the night that prompted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), but I want to shift focus to the tale of the death bride, because it seems to be relevant as a source narrative for the discussion of ghosts.[xxi] In ‘the Death Bride’, we find the story recounted by an Italian marquis of a dark, masked lady visiting the marriage fête of Filippo and Camilla, and bearing in uncanny fashion Camilla’s accessories. As in the case of the veil, the mask is used to create obscurity and suspense, as well as to denote an otherworldly figure whose features remain hidden from human eyes. Throughout the narrative, the lady ‘obstinately persisted in her determination to remain unknown’ (p. 103), even after Camilla’s father insisted that all masks were removed. Like Bannerman’s Dark Ladie, the death bride is an uninvited guest that invites the looks of the beholders, but does not speak, and elicits mystery, especially by directing her gaze towards inconstant Filippo.

By the end of the narrative, we learn the story of the ‘Death-Bride’ who lived during the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries and who had been ungrateful towards her lover, whose ghost haunted her and eventually killed her. From that moment, ‘the spirit of this unfortunate creature wanders on earth in every possible shape; particularly in that of lovely females, to render their loved ones inconstant’ (p. 111). The inconstancy of Filippo strangely echoes the way the Perjured Nun from Bannerman’s poem was wronged by Geraldine’s current lover. Like Filippo, Henrie is also found dead.

Echoes of this story can be found in Baillie’s ‘The Storm-Beat Maid’, where a mysterious, ghost-like lady imposes on the feast of a wedding day to cast her looks upon the groom. Baillie never reveals whether the lady is a ghost, but there is evidence that she scatters throughout the poem:

Yet heedless still she held her way, Nor feared she crag, nor dell, Like ghost that through the gloom to stray Wakes with the midnight bell. (my emphasis, ll. 17-20)

The lady moves like a ghost in the night, and in the feast the groom beholds her fair but withered features, ‘her sunken eye’ making him remember his infidelity. However, Baillie turns Filippo’s ghastly death in ‘The Death-Bride’ on its head and re-works the narrative as one of reconciliation and repentance. The couple is re-united, and neither ‘life nor death, Shall ever make us twain’ (ll. 163-4). Gothic tropes like the mysterious bride that Baillie uses may have been replicated again and again in Gothic writings of the period, but Baillie seems to find new and creative ways in which to convey her views on human agency through the power of the Gothic.

In her essay ‘On Ghosts’ (1824), Mary Shelley asks: ‘What have we left to dream about? … what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier’s brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight?’ (p. 281).[xxii] Throughout the essay, Shelley laments the dissolution of this thrill in the face of tales of the supernatural, and its replacement by an omnipotent disbelief in it by the age of Reason. The same regret would be articulated in a detailed study of supernatural occurrences later in the century by Catherine Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature (1847), where Crowe turns to a re-evaluation of the supernatural that is potently different than strictly medical treatises like Dr. John Ferriar’s ‘An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions’ (1813), which ascribe these cases to mental instability or illusion (p. 14).[xxiii] The truth is that, real or not, the Romantics shared a very close relationship with ghosts, personal or otherwise. In ‘On Ghosts’, Shelley tells us that ‘Coleridge was asked if he believed in ghosts, -- he replied that he had seen too many to put any trust in their reality’ (p. 282).

But these ghosts, as Shelley says, are personal ‘phantoms’ that ‘appalled the senses’ yet were ‘an optical deception’, different from the ‘other shapes’, haunting in their unearthliness, that are felt as too real to be dismissed as mere figments of the imagination (p. 282). Shelley’s questions on the supernatural cannot be settled; yet the literature of the Romantic period frequently provides an abode for ghosts that seem to serve a highly political function. These ghosts show us who we are, and how the past is implicated in the present. Through the power of the border between the living and the dead, identities are shaped and re-shaped, contested, and re-written. The stronger the light, the more persistently ghosts appear to show us what exists in the shadows.

[i] Baillie, Joanna, ‘Orra’, in The Dramatic and Poetical Works Of Joanna Baillie [electronic source], (London: Longman, 1851), ProQuest LLC, 1994, [Accessed 12 February 2020]. [ii] A Jacobin Novelist, ‘The Terrorist System of Novel-Writing’, [Accessed 10 February 2020]. [iii] Wordsworth, William, ‘Preface’, in Lyrical Ballads 1805, ed. by Derek Rope (Plymouth, Northcote House, 1968), pp. 18-48, (p. 25). [iv] Baillie, Joanna, ‘To Fear’, in The Selected Poems of Joanna Baillie: 1762-1851, ed. by Jennifer Breen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp. 71-3. [v] Varley, John, A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy, Illustrated by Engravings of Heads and Features, and Accompanied by Tables of the Time of Rising of the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac. (London: Published by Varley, and Sold by Longman, 1828). Wordsworth, William, ‘The Haunted Tree’, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. by James Russell Lowell, 2 vols (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), pp. 224-5. [vi] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘208. To Thomas Poole’, in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Earl Leslie Griggs, 1 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), pp. 346-8. [vii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘The Pains of Sleep’, in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by J. C. C. Mays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 753-5. [viii] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘Ode to the Departing Year’, in The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Derwent and Sara Coleridge (London: Edward Moxon & Co, 1863), pp. 157-63. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, in The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Derwent and Sara Coleridge (London: Edward Moxon & Co, 1863), pp. 93-117. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘Christabel’, in The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Derwent and Sara Coleridge (London: Edward Moxon & Co, 1863), pp. 118-42. [ix] Robinson, Mary, Stanzas Written After Successive Nights of Melancholy Dreams’, in Mary Robinson: Selected Poems, ed. by Judith Pascoe (Peterborough: broadview literary texts, 2000), pp. 130-2. [x] Lewis, Matthew G., The Monk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) [xi] ‘phantom’, in the Oxford English Dictionary [online], [Accessed 14 February 2020]. [xii] Radcliffe, Ann, ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, in Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, ed. by David Sandner (London: Praeger, 2004), pp. 41-50. Radcliffe, Ann, The Mysteries of Udolpho (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) [xiii] See ‘The Haunted Beach’ from Robinson’s Lyrical Tales (1800): Robinson, Mary, ‘The Haunted Beach’, in Mary Robinson: Selected Poems, ed. by Judith Pascoe (Peterborough: broadview literary texts, 2000), pp. 217-20. Robinson, Mary, Hubert de Sevrac (London: Hookham and Carpenter, 1796) [xiv] Bannerman, Ann, Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (London: Vernon and Hood, 1802) [xv] Bannerman, Ann, ‘The Dark Ladie’, in Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (London: Vernon and Hood, 1802), pp. 3-16. Bannerman, Ann, ‘The Perjured Nun’, in Tales of Superstition and Chivalry (London: Vernon and Hood, 1802), pp. 38-48. [xvi] Makala, Edmundson Melissa, Women's Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013) [xvii] Craciun, Adriana, Fatal Women of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, ‘Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie’, in The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Derwent and Sara Coleridge (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1860), pp. 193-4. [xviii] Aikin, Anna Letitia, ‘Sir Bertrand: A Fragment’, in Gothic Short Stories, ed. by David Blair (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2002), pp. 3-6. [xix] Keats, John, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, in John Keats: Complete Poems, ed. by Jack Stillinger (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 270-1. [xx] Baillie, Joanna, ‘The Storm-Beat Maid’, in The Selected Poems of Joanna Baillie: 1762-1851, ed. by Jennifer Breen (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp. 58-64. ‘The Death-Bride’, in Fantasmagoriana: Tales of the Dead, ed. by A. J. Day, trans. by A. J. Day et al. (St. Ives: Fantasmagoriana Press, 2005), pp. 89-112. [xxi] Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein: The 1818 Text (New York: Penguin, 2018) Polidori, John, The Vampyre: A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819) [xxii] Shelley, Mary, ‘On Ghosts’, in Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook, ed. by Emma J. Clery and Robert Miles (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 280-4. From London Magazine, vol. 9 (March 1824), pp. 253-6. [xxiii] Crowe, Catherine, The Night-Side of Nature: Or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850) Ferriar, John, An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions (London: Cadell and Davies, 1813)


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