1790
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[On Gothic Superstition.]

The Speculator (6 April 1790) 43-48.

Dr. Nathan Drake


Nathan Drake's essay describes the sources of gothic superstitions and the pleasures they afford literary readers: "The traditionary tales of elves and fairies still convey to a warm imagination an inexhausted source of invention, supplying all those wild, romantic, and varied ideas with which a wayward fancy loves to sport. The Provencal bards, and the neglected Chaucer and Spenser, are the originals from whence this exquisite mythology has been drawn, improved, and applied with, so much inventive elegance by Shakspeare" p. 44. Drake divides the gothic machinery into two kinds, the terrible and the sportive, commenting, "how feeble, cold, and insipid are the mythological fables of the classic bard, compared to the bold and daring fictions of the Gothic Muse" p. 46. He implicitly takes issue with Richard Hurd's claim in Letters on Chivalry and Romance that such fiction, while pleasing in the elder writers, would be absurd in a modern poet, selecting the Fairfax passage from William Collins's Superstitions Ode (recently published)to make his point: "Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind | Believ'd the magic wonders which he sung!"

In concluding, Drake promises to illustrate his point about the two kinds of gothic in an ode and a tale; these appeared in Numbers VII and X-XII respectively. Both his Ode to Superstition and Tale of Sir Gawen are very much in the Spenserian tradition.

W. Davenport Adams: "Nathan Drake, M.D., author (b. 1766, d. 1836), wrote Literary Hours: or, Sketches, Critical, Narrative, and Poetical (1798); Essays, Biographical. Critical, and Historical, illustrative of the Essayists (1808-09); The Gleaner (1811); Shakespeare and his Times (1817); Winter Nights: or, a Series of Essays (1822); Mornings in Spring: or, Recollections, Biographical, Critical, and Historical (1828); and Memorials of Shakespeare (1828)" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 185.




Of the various kinds of superstition which have in any age influenced the human mind, none appear to have operated with so much effect as what has been termed the Gothic. Even in the present polished period of society, there are thousands who are yet alive to all the horrors of witchcraft, to all the solemn and terrible graces of the appalling spectre. The most enlightened mind, the mind free from all taint of superstition involuntarily acknowledges the power of Gothic agency; and the late favourable reception which two or three publications in this style have met with, is a convincing proof of the assertion. The enchanted forest of Tasso, the spectre of Camoens, and the apparitions of Shakspeare, are to this day highly pleasing, striking, and sublime features in these delightful compositions.

And although this kind of superstition be able to arrest every faculty of the human mind, and to shake, as were, all nature with horror, yet does it also delight in the most sportive and elegant imagery. The traditionary tales of elves and fairies still convey to a warm imagination an inexhausted source of invention, supplying all those wild, romantic, and varied ideas with which a wayward fancy loves to sport. The Provencal bards, and the neglected Chaucer and Spenser, are the originals from whence this exquisite mythology has been drawn, improved, and applied with, so much inventive elegance by Shakspeare. The flower and the leaf of Chaucer is replete with the most luxuriant description of these praeternatural beings.

Next to the Gothic in point of sublimity and imagination comes the Celtic, which, if the superstition of the Lowlands be esteemed a part of it, may, with equal propriety be divided into the terrible and the sportive; the former, is displayed in the poems of Ossian; the latter, in the songs and ballads of the Low Country. Ossian has opened a new field for invention, he has coloured a set of beings unknown to Gothic fiction; his ghosts are not the ghosts of Shakspeare, yet are they equally solemn and striking. The abrupt and rapid fervor of imagination, the vivid touches of enthusiasm, mark his composition, and his spectres rush upon the eye with all the stupendous vigour of wild and momentary creation. So deep and uniform a melancholy pervades the poetry of this author, that, whether from natural disposition, or the pressure of misfortune, from the face of the country which he inhabited, or the insulated state of society, he seems ever to have avoided imagery of a light and airy kind; otherwise, from the originality of his genius, much in this way might have been expected. As to the superstition of the Lowlands, it differs so little from the lighter Gothic, that I know not whether I am warranted in drawing any distinction between them. It is not, however, peculiar to this district of Scotland, the Highlanders in many parts, especially in their beautiful little vales, being still enthusiastic in their belief of it.

These are then the two species of superstition which seem most capable of invigorating the powers of imagination: how feeble, cold, and insipid are the mythological fables of the classic bard, compared to the bold and daring fictions of the Gothic Muse.

It has been, however, too much the fashion among critical writers, to condemn the introduction of this kind of imagery, a puerile and absurd; but, whilst it is thus formed to influence mankind, to surprize, elevate, and delight, with a willing admiration, every faculty of the human mind, how shall criticism with impunity dare to expunge it? Genius has ever had a predilection for it, and it has ever been the favourite superstition of the poets. I may venture, I think, to predict, that if at any time this species of fabling be totally laid aside, our rational poetry will degenerate into mere morality, criticism, and satire; and that the sublime the terrible, and the fanciful in poetry, will no longer exist. The recent publication of Mr. Hole's Arthur, or the Northern Enchantment, will again call the attention of the public to these fertile sources of invention, for it is

In scenes like these, which, daring to depart
From sober truth, are still to nature true,
And call forth fresh delight to Fancy's view,
Th' heroic muse employ'd her Tasso's art!
How have I trembled, when at Tancred's stroke,
In gushing blood the gaping cypress pour'd;
When each live plant with mortal accents spoke,
And the wild blast upheav'd the vanish'd sword!
How have I sat, when pip'd the pensive wind,
To hear his harp by British Fairfax strung.
Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind
Believ'd the magic wonders which he sung!
Hence at each sound imagination glows;
Hence his warm lay with softest sweetness flows;
Melting, it flows, pure, numerous, strong and clear,
And fills th' impassion'd heart, and wins th' harmonious ear.
COLLINS.

The poet from whose works the above quotation has been taken, possessed all that fervor of enthusiasm, all that warmth of imagination characteristic of true genius; and although ignorance and bad taste have not unfrequently classed him with a Tickell and a Hammond, yet with the discerning few will he ever hold an exalted rank in the regions of pathos and invention.

By fairy hands his knell is rung;
By forms unseen his dirge is sung:
Oft "Fancy" comes "at twilight" grey,
To bless the turf that wraps his clay;
And "Pity" shall a while repair
To dwell a weeping "Votress" there.

But, to return to our subject. — Although so great a disparity evidently obtains between the two species of Gothic superstition, the terrible and the sportive; yet no author, that I am acquainted with, has availed himself of this circumstance, and thrown them into immediate contrast. In a fragment lately published by Mrs. Barbauld, under the title of Sir Bertrand, the transition is immediately from the deep Gothic to the Arabic or Saracenic superstition; which, although calculated to surprize, would have given more pleasure, and would have rendered the preceding scenes of horror more striking,had it been of a light and contrasted kind. Struck, therefore, with the propriety of the attempt, and the exquisite beauty that would probably result from such an opposition of imagery, I have determined to devote a few Papers to this design, and to give exemplifications in an Ode and Tale; and, as I have often observed this kind of superstition to take great hold of the reader's curiosity, I doubt not they will meet with a favourable reception.


[pp. 43-48]