Introduction: Gothic Materials of the Eighteenth Century

By Wright, Angela | Gothic Studies, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Gothic Materials of the Eighteenth Century


Wright, Angela, Gothic Studies


Fixing at last, the sanguinary race

Spread, from the Humber's loud resounding shore

To where the Thames devolves his gentle maze,

And with superior arm the Saxon awed.

But superstition first, and monkish dreams

And monk-directed cloister-seeking kings

Had eat away his vigour, eat away

His edge of courage, and depressed the soul

Of conquering freedom which he once respired.

Thus cruel ages passed; and rare appeared

White-mantled Peace, exulting o'er the vale;

As when, with Alfred, from the wilds she came

To policed cities and protected plains.

Thus by degrees the Saxon empire sunk,

Then set entire in Hastings' bloody field.1

James Thomson's poem Liberty (1734-6) draws a causal connection between England's former bondage to 'superstition' and 'monkish dreams' and its subjugation. The Saxon empire, so Liberty argues, was crucially diminished by 'cloisterseeking kings'. This enfeeblement in turn led to its premature demise at the Battle of Hastings when 'the haughty Norman' William the Conqueror seized control of England.

Thomson's Liberty now seems to be at a far remove from what we understand by 'Gothic'. The poem goes on to characterise the 'Roman, Saxon, Dane' as 'Gothic nations' who have 'in vain' 'toiled and bled' for England. It paints England as a nation that historically has rarely enjoyed 'White-mantled Peace', as a nation that is subject to constant invasion and subjugation. It is a nation that lost its 'vigour' and appetite for resistance through its former enthralment to superstition. Liberty both celebrates Britain's gradual rejection of these superstitious, monkish manacles and its enrichment from the 'Gothic nations' which helped to compose it.

At first glance, it is hard to reconcile Thomson's panegyric to 'Gothic nations' as freedom fighters against 'monkish superstition' with post-revolutionary views of 'Gothic' as the harbinger of monkish superstition in the 1790s. Responding to Edmund Burke's sentimental lamentation for the French monarchy in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, famously reproved his nostalgia with the observation that 'man preys on man; and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile, and the dronish bell who summoned the fat priest to prayer.'2 Synthesising the architectural, aesthetic, predatory and Catholic possibilities of Gothic, Wollstonecraft's condemnation of Burke seemingly took sustenance from what we now recognise as 'Gothic' tropes inaugurated in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). Wollstonecraftwas certainly familiar enough with 'Gothic' to acknowledge its polysemy when she challenges Burke, 'Why was it a duty to repair an ancient castle, built in barbarous ages, of Gothic materials? Why were the legislators obliged to rake amongst heterogeneous ruins; to rebuild old walls, whose foundations could scarcely be explored [. . .]'.3 The careful plural invocation of 'Gothic materials' hints at an awareness that these materials have, over time, produced 'heterogeneous ruins'.

Wollstonecraft's heterogeneous vision of the 'Gothic materials' that go to compose Burke's feudal castle leaves us with a structural sedimentation that over time has offered its readership a wide, conflicting and confusing range of meanings for 'Gothic'. She hints at the unfathomable nature of Gothic when she acknowledges that the castle's 'foundations could scarcely be explored'. Fred Botting observes that for Wollstonecraft, 'Gothic stinks of all things aristocratic, tyrannical, irrational and useless, its romanticism archaic, barbaric and resistant to change.'4 Retrograde and nugatory, Wollstonecraft's condemnation set the tone for the connotations of 'Gothic' that we take into the 1790s, for when the term itself is invoked in the 1790s, it is invariably used in relation to the cluster of values to which Botting draws attention. Republican American poet Joel Barlow, for example, hailed the 'epoch of light and liberty' that was liberating nations (particularly America and France) from 'this miserable appendage of Gothicism', again harnessing the nugatory values of Gothic to particularly aristocratic and monarchical forms of tyranny. …

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