The Gothic Elements in the Poetry of John Keats

By Hanieh Mehr Motlagh

Professor Dr. Asadi Romantic Poetry
Mondays-14:15-15:45 Fall 2010


This paper is going to discuss the Gothic elements that can be found in five poems by John Keats: “Isabella; or The Pot of Basil”, “The Eve of St. Agnes”, “Lamia”, “Endymion”, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. The paper tries to analyze how Keats deals with the fantastic and supernatural

powers at the time when Newtonian science had led to demystification of the universe. Also by bringing Gothic elements in his poetry he comes to the states of mysteries, doubts and uncertainties to talk about his idea of negative capability.



Imagination and creativity of the writers have caused the production of various forms of literary genres. Susan Ritter states that as a result of the conflict felt by society of the Age of Reason, in which philosophers such as Smith and Hume justified self-interested behavior, and the economic and societal collapse the English were experiencing, which contradicted these same philosophies, the writers reacted by returning to fantasy, supernatural, and unexplainable tales to escape this world. This reaction led to the genre of fantasy literature, of which Gothic is one part.

Palca believes that Gothicism is part of the Romantic Movement that started in the late 18th century and lasted to three decades into the 19th century. The Romantic Movement is characterized by innovation (instead of traditionalism), spontaneity (according to Wordsworth good poetry is a ―spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings‖), expression (especially the thoughts & feelings of the poet himself), and idealization of nature (Romantic poets were also referred to as ―nature poets‖) and the belief of living in an age of ―new beginnings and high possibilities.‖ The Gothic has been further divided by Robert Hume into two sub genres, horror novels and terror novels ,each possessing particular characteristics, or features, of which most texts contain at least some but not all. As Michael Gamer points out in his book Romanticism and the Gothic, ―Gothic does not seem to have become a critical term denoting genre until two decades into the nineteenth century‖ (49); this long process of definition had begun with Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story in 1764, and by the 1790's ―Gothic‖ was clearly the most popular form of contemporary writing. Gamer convincingly argues that objections from readers, authors, editors, and reviewers reveal, as he shows, some ―common assumptions about purity—whether sexual, generic, national or editorial—and about reading both as process and social threat‖ (50).


Therefore, Gothic elements were used primarily by the novelists of the period, but many of these same elements can be applied to the poetry written by the Romantic poets e.g. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth and John Keats. Poetry has not been classified extensively as belonging to the Gothic, but when the reader understands the tradition and reads the poems with it in mind, the elements of the Gothic can be readily uncovered. This paper is going to discuss the Gothic elements that can be seen in the poetry of John Keats and how he deals with the fantastic and supernatural powers. Looking through Keats’s Gothic readings resulted in the fact that Keats himself was under the influence of Gothic genre in the novel of the period (see page14).


The Gothic Elements
Literature of the supernatural often uses recurring themes, images, and symbols to envision the human condition. Supernatural motifs appear throughout literature but are most prominent in the literary genre labeled ―Gothic,‖ which developed in the late eighteenth-century as a reaction to the central ideology of the Enlightenment. According to Douglass H. Thomson, there are many elements that can be seen in different Gothic works for example: ancestral curse , antiCatholicism, Body-Snatching (grave-robbing), cemetery , claustrophobia 1 ,Gothic counterfeit 2, devil ,dreaming/nightmares , entrapment , explained supernatural , exorcism 3 , female Gothic , ghost ,grotesque , haunted house , incubus 4 , Doppelgänger 5 ,inquisition6 , lamia , literature of terror vs. literature of horror , marvelous vs. uncanny , mist , mystery, necromancy, revenant7 , revenge , dark romanticism , sadism , sensibility , somnambulism 8 , spiritualism , sublime , succubus9 , supernatural gadgetry10 ,superstition , transformation ,unreliable narrator , vampire , villain-hero, werewolf 11, wandering Jew , necromancy12, witches and witchcraft. Some of the distinguishing characteristics of the Gothic which is used in Keats poems are: Dreaming Based on what Douglass H. Thomson says, dreaming is characterized as a form of mental activity that takes place during the act of sleep. Dreams invoke strong emotions
An abnormal dread of being confined in a close or narrow space. A playful fakery of authenticity. 3 Exorcism is the religiously based act of forcing the Devil or a demon from the body of a possessed person. 4 The incubus is characterized as a male demon who forces himself sexually upon mortal women as they sleep. 5 Dopplegänger comes from German; literally translated, it means “doublegoer.” A dopplegänger is often the ghostly counterpart of a living person. It can also mean a double, alter ego, or even another person who has the same name. 6 The Inquisition was a permanent institution in the Catholic Church charged with the eradication of heresies. The judge, or inquisitor, could bring suit against anyone. 7 The return of the dead to terrorize or to settle some score with the living. 8 Sleepwalking 9 The succubus is characterized as a female counterpart of the incubus. 10 The physical elements in Gothic works that represent the means by which the various supernatural beings and or powers display their presence and uncanny abilities. Some common examples of supernatural props are "vocal and mobile portraits; veiled statues that come to life; animated skeletons. 11 In European folklore, a werewolf is a normal human by day that turns into a wolf at night. These wolves eat people, animals, or even corpses. 12 Necromancy is the black art of communicating with the dead
1 2


within the dreamer, such as ecstasy, joy and terror. Dreams dredge up these deep emotions and premonitions that reflect tellingly upon the dreamer, what one might conceal during waking hours but what emerges in sleep to haunt and arouse the dreamer. It is most likely due to this heightened emotional state that dreams are used so often within Gothic Literature. For by invoking dream states within their characters, authors are able to illustrate emotions on a more unmediated and, oftentimes, terrifying level. Dreams reveal to the reader what the character is often too afraid to realize about himself or herself. Dreaming also has an ancient relation with the act of foretelling wherein the future is glimpsed in the dream state.

Superstition ―It is a term‖, says Douglass H. Thomson, ―for the religious and political dimensions of Gothic Literature, especially its reception‖. ―Superstition‖ generally gathered its sharply negative connotations in the late 18th century from two sources: 1) Protestant disdain for the ritualistic and miraculous character of Catholic worship; 2) rationalist opposition to unexamined systems of belief that impeded the search for truth (see the early Wordsworth: ―Science with joy saw Superstition fly / Before the lustre of Religion's eye; . . . / No shadowy forms entice the soul aside, /Secure she walks, Philosophy her guide"). It can be seen as a kind of cultural sickness and that’s why the early critics of the Gothic constantly accuse it of filling the reader’s mind with ―superstition‖.

Entrapment & Imprisonment According to Douglass H. Thomson, it is a favorite horror device of the Gothic in which a person is confined or trapped, such as being shackled to a floor or hidden away in some dark cell or cloister.


Keats’s Poems

Based on what has been said about the different elements of Gothic, the following poems of Keats have been chosen to be analyzed. The following Keats's poems reveal an artistic sensibility well acquainted with the Gothic and supernatural literature of his time. I “Isabella; or The Pot of Basil” is a narrative poem by John Keats and the story is based on a story in Boccaccio's Decameron. It is about a girl named Isabella who falls in love with Lorenzo who is one of the workers of the family. When her brothers learn about this, kill Lorenzo and bury it but Lorenzo’s ghost informs Isabella in her dream about what has happened to him and in this case we have the Gothic death-in-life state: It was a vision.—In the drowsy gloom, The dull of midnight, at her couch’s foot Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb Had marr’d his glossy hair which once could shoot Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute From his lorn voice, and past his loamed ears Had made a miry channel for his tears. (XXXV) Dr. A. Abjadian states that Lorenzo’s ghost is described as having ―Strange sound‖ and ―the pale shadow‖ to add to its strangeness. Isabella who herself has a Gothic nature, ―believes in her dream‖ and tries to find Lorenzo’s body (667) and then she buries the head in a pot of basil and sheds tears upon it: She wrapp’d it up; and for its tomb did choose A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by, And cover’d it with mould, and o’er it set Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet.( LII)

II The next poem, in which Gothic elements are visible, is “The Eve of St. Agnes”. This poem is about Madeline and her lover Porphyro. This poem is based on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes; if she went to bed without looking behind her and lay on her back with her hands under her head, he would appear in her dream: They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve, Young virgins might have visions of delight, And soft adorings from their loves receive Upon the honey’d middle of the night, If ceremonies due they did aright; As, supperless to bed they must retire, And couch supine their beauties, lily white; Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire. (VI)

In the first, second and third stanzas the poet introduces a dark and morbid setting common to the Gothic – frozen, imprisoned images in the chapel and the Beadsman’s own close death. Also, as Mark Sandy states the poem is set in a medieval castle with Gothic interior. The lines of poem that describe the castle are as follow: ―The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,‖ (IV) … ―Beside the portal doors, Buttress'd from moonlight, stands he, and implores All saints to give him sight of Madeline, ‖ (IX) …

―He follow'd through a lowly arched way, Brushing the cobwebs with his lofty plume‖ (XIII) … ―A casement high and triple-arch'd there was, All garlanded with carven imag'ries‖ (XXIV) … ―They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall; Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide,‖ ( XLI)

III "Lamia", the next poem, tells how the God Hermes hears of a nymph who is more beautiful than all. Hermes, searches for the nymph but he finds Lamia which is trapped in the form of a serpent. She reveals the previously invisible nymph to him and in return he restores her human form. She goes to find Lycius who is a man in Corinth. Hermes and his nymph go together into the woods. Lycius and Lamia want to celebrate their wedding but the party is destroyed when the sage Apollonius reveals Lamia's true identity at their wedding feast. So she becomes serpent again and Lycius dies of grief. Based on what has been said in the Science Fair Project Encyclopedia, when the snake's form is combined with that of a woman, it becomes an especially unnatural and shocking image. The fear of the snake is tempered by the pleasure derived from the woman's beauty, so the snake woman is terrifying and therefore Gothic. Lamia fits the Gothic description because she is a supernatural being, and at times she is frightening. For example, not only is Lamia described as being connected with nature, but she is described as supernatural: ―She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue‖ (47). And she is composed of both of both mortal and immortal elements, which was extremely unusual in literature at the time:

―Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet, She had a woman’s mouth, with all it’s pearls complete‖ (I 59-60). According to Dr. A. Abjadian, Lamia has magical power by which she has made a nymph invisible: ―And by my power is her beauty veil’d‖ (I 100) and she makes ―a magical palace where she and Lycius can live free from the difficulties of the outward world‖ (727). The setting of ―Lamia‖ is both fantastical and radical. For example, in ―Lamia‖, the beginning of the poem gives us an example of such a setting: ―Upon a time, before the faery broods Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,‖ (I 1-2). The very beginning line shows the supernatural setting that is set in a very isolated land and these are the two important features of the Gothic. The setting is also concerned with nature. Since Keats has personified Nature to a point where it can be referred to as a character in the poem, this can be considered as another Gothic element: ―From rushes green, and brakes, and cowslip'd lawns, That was, Breathing upon the flowers his passion new, And wound with many a river to its head.‖ (I, 6 and 29 -28) Dr. A. Abjadian believes that Keats has used many imaginative and Gothic elements in his poems in order to arouse the emotions of the reader and to bring back the mystic to the realm of poetry. In one of his letters Keats says that at the age of devoid of imagination and when fairies were excluded from everyday life, the mystery of the rainbow had been vanished. He is dissatisfied with the idea of Newton who called the rainbow as a colorful ribbon and destroyed its beauty (730).


Moreover, in the poem ―Lamia‖, Keats sa ys: Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine— Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade. (II 234-238) Lamia is compared to an angel and a rainbow, which are both pleasant images. Philosophy is stronger than she is, but it is cold and cruel. ―Without the enchanting and unknown things that imagination provides, life loses its luster and becomes unlivable‖; the refore, when the philosopher Apollonius reveals Lamia's true identity at the wedding feast, she returns to a serpent again (―Geraldine and Lamia‖) IV “Endymion” is the forth poem to be discussed. It is written in four books and tells the story of how Endymion sees a goddess in his dream and how much he loved her. Book I gives Endymion's account of his dreams and experiences: Dream within dream!‖—-―She took an airy range, And then, towards me, like a very maid, Came blushing, waning, willing, and afraid, And press’d me by the hand: Ah! ’twas too much; Methought I fainted at the charmed touch. (I, 633-637) In Book II, Endymion goes into the underworld in search of his love. This part of the poem is full of mystery, awe and supernatural: The youth approach’d; oft turning his veil’d eye Down sidelong aisles, and into niches old. And when, more near against the marble cold He had touch’d his forehead, he began to thread


All courts and passages, where silence dead Rous’d by his whispering footsteps murmured faint: And long he travers’d to and fro, to acquaint Himself with every mystery, and awe; Till, weary, he sat down before the maw Of a wide outlet, fathomless and dim To wild uncertainty and shadows grim. (II 263-273)

H. E. Briggs says that Book III "reveals Endymion's enduring love, and he begs the Moon not to torment him any longer"and, here, personification of moon as a tormentor makes it Gothic. Finally in Book IV, he becomes disappointed that may be he can’t find Cynthia but suddenly he finds her. V “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is another poem by Keats in which Gothic elements are used. An unidentified speaker asks a knight what is bothering him. The knight is pale and ―haggard‖ and it seems he is dying. The knight answers that he met a beautiful lady who had looked at him as if she loved him. When he set her on his horse, she led him to her cave. There she had sung him to sleep. In his sleep he had a nightmarish dream. In his dream, pale kings, princes, told him that he had been enslaved by a beautiful but cruel lady. When he awoke, the lady was gone and he was lying on ―a cold hillside‖. The gothic elements in this poem are shown in the use of nightmarish dream and supernatural power which eventually bring death to the knight. Keats sets his simple story of love and death in a bleak wintry landscape that is appropriate to it: ― The sedge has wither'd from the lake / And no birds sing!‖. ―The beautiful lady who is without pity‖, states Dougald MacEachen, ―is a femme fatale, a Circelike figure who attracts lovers only to destroy them by her supernatural powers. She destroys because it is her nature to destroy. Keats could have found patterns for his ―faery's child‖ in folk mythology, classical literature, Renaissance poetry, or the


medieval ballad. With a few skillful touches, he creates a woman who is at once beautiful, attractive, fascinating, and deadly.‖ As entrapment is a favorite horror device of the Gothic, in this poem the knight says: I saw pale kings and princes too, Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; They cried—―La Belle Dame sans Merci Hath thee in thrall! (X) Since ―thrall‖ is a kind of entrapment, being in the spiritual trap is even more horrible and dangerous than being physically entrapped. By using these powerful imageries and Gothic elements Keats strengthens his idea of pleasure thermometer. Dr. Abjadian says: ―The knight rises up the pleasure thermometer and is like the man who has destroyed his own identity and now is the poet. But the knight falls down the pleasure thermometer and is similar to the poet who comes to his own self and is no longer a poet.‖(277)



When the topic of Gothic literature is discussed most readers immediately think of the vampire stories, tales of horror and terror, and supernatural tales, but the use of Gothic in poetry also has enhanced the images of stories in these shorter works. While the longer Gothic novels and tales can elaborate on the defining characteristics of the genre, the poet can create the same fantasies with limited words as seen in many Gothic style poems. Keats has used many imaginative and Gothic elements in his poems in order to arouse the emotions of the reader and to bring back the mystic to the realm of poetry. In one of his letters he says that in the age of devoid of imagination and when fairies were excluded from everyday life , the mystery of the rainbow had been vanished. He is dissatisfied with the idea of Newton who called the rainbow as a colorful ribbon and destroyed it beauty. John Keats as a Romantic poet is against demystification of the world which was the result of Newtonian science that turned everything into calculation. Facts and science conceal the imaginations and poetry. In a time when people are more concerned with the external life rather than the internal life, the imaginative poetry is mostly needed. The best way to understand Keats’s poem is his letters. ―The most important of his letters‖, states Rene Wellek, ―is the one which is about the poet’s ability to negate himself‖ (2 50). In a letter to George and Thomas Keats, Keats explains his belief in negative capability: ―… negative capability…is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason‖ (250). Therefor e Keats , like other Romantic poets, is against too much science and facts and by the help of his powerful imagination and by using Gothic features in his poetry adds mysteries to his poems and creates the conditions of doubts and uncertainties.


Keats' Gothic Readings

According to Douglass Thomson the list of Gothic works read by Keats is as follows:

Beckford, William. Vathek (1787). Letter to J. H. Reynolds 25 March 1818,

concerning the tedious curator of the cottage where Burns was born: "I sho'd like to employ Caleph Vathek to kick him." Verse letter to J. H. Reynolds 25 March 1818: "Part of the building [the Enchanted Castle] was a chosen See / Built by a banish'd Santon of Chaldee" (41-42). As Gittings points out in The Mask of Keats (1968), "the Santons were a race of holy men who appear in Vathek; they too suffer kicking and other indignities by the order of the Caleph" (101). Gittings also argues persuasively that Keats borrows imagery from the fiery palace of Eblis in his creation of the Titans' underworld in "Hyperion" (255).

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland; or The Transformation (1798). Letter to

Woodhouse 22 Sept. 1819: "Ask [Reynolds] if he has read any of the American Brown's novels--I have read one called Wieland--very powerful--something like Godwin-Between Schiller and Godwin--A domestic prototype of Schiller's Armenian--More clever than Godwin--A strange American scion of the German trunk. Powerful genius-accomplished horrors."

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams (1794) and/or St. Leon (1799). See letter to

Woodhouse above.

(?) Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk (1796) or perhaps some of the

Romantic Tales (1808). Ward, in John Keats: The Making of a Poet, conjectures that "some of his pocket money went on thrillers popular with schoolboys of his time, such as Beckford's Vathek and the novels of Monk Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe" (18).


Maturin, Charles. Bertram (1815) and Manuel (1816). See Stuart Peterfreund,

"Keats' Debt to Maturin." WC 13 (1983): 45-49.

Peacock, Thomas Love. Given their acquaintance, a good chance of one of his

Gothic sendups like Nightmare Abbey (1818) or Headlong Hall (1816). See letter to Haydon 14 March 1818: "Peacock has damned satire."

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).

Letter to Reynolds 14 March 1818: "Buy a girdle--put a pebble in your mouth--loosen your braces--for I am going among scenery whence I intend to tip you to the Damosel Radcliffe--I'll cavern you, and grotto you, and waterfall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense rock you, and tremendous round you, and solitutde you." Letter to George Keats 14 Feb. 1819: "In my packet I shall send you the Pot of Basil, St. Agnes eve, and if I should have finished it a little thing called 'Eve of St. Mark'--you see what fine Mother Radcliffe names I have--it is not my fault--I did not search for them." Also see Martha Hale Shackleford's "'The Eve of St. Agnes' and The Mysteries of Udolpho," PMLA 36. (1921): 104-118.

Schiller, Friedrich. The Ghostseer or the Armenian.


―Geraldine and Lamia: The Two Faces of the Gothic Snake Woman‖. Everything2. Sep.2005. < nake+Woman>. ―Lamia and Other Poems‖. Science Fair Project Encyclopedia. Dec.2010. <> Abjadian Amrollah, A Literary History of England: English Romantic Poets, Vol. VII . Shiraz: Central Publication of Shiraz .2009. 667-730 . Abjadian Amrollah, A Survey of English Literature, Vol. II. Tehran: SAMT. 2002. 277. Briggs H. E., Keats's Conscious and Unconscious Reactions to Criticism of Endymion, PMLA, Modern Language Association .1945. Gamer Michael, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000. 49- 50. MacEachen, Dougald B. CliffsNotes on Keats' Poems. Cliffs Notes: The Fastest Way to Learn. Dec. 2010 . <>. Palca K. ―GOTHIC GENRE‖. Westport. Dec.2010. <>. Sandy Mark,‖ Dream Lovers and Tragic Romance: Negative Fictions in Keats's Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Isabella‖. Romanticism on the Net . Dec.2010 <>. Thomson H. Douglass. ―A Glossary of Literary Gothic Terms". Department of Literature and Philosophy of Georgia Southern University. Dec. 2010. <>. Thomson H. Douglass. “Keats' Gothic Readings”. Department of Literature and Philosophy of Georgia Southern University. Dec. 2010 <>. Wellek Rene, A History of Modern Criticism: The Romantic Age. Vol. II. Tehran: Niloufar. 2006. 250.


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