Between Saints and Monsters: Elegy, Materialization, and Gothic Historiography in Percy Shelley’s Adonais and The Wandering Jew

Building on Jerrold E. Hogle's thinking about Gothic historiography and Julia Lupton's analysis of Renaissance hagiography, this paper explores the Gothic as a reliquary of sorts where rejected and outdated forms of historical consciousness persist beyond the moment of their ostensible viability. Shelley's Adonais (1821) and The Wandering Jew (1810), I argue, demonstrate how historical thought itself is haunted by elements that cannot enter into history proper. In the oscillation between Keats’s preservation as celebrity and the Wandering Jew’s violent exclusion from rational history, we encounter an historical materiality that irritates the “progressive revelation” (Wasserman) that the elegy—one mode of Gothic hagiography—supposedly provides. Secular historiography, undertaken by what was called in the 18th century “the philosophy of history,” remains a theodicy that finds in elegy a poetic correlate to hagiography: in this model, all loss, violence, or suffering is read as a kind of felix culpa with elegy providing aesthetic compensation for trauma. Shelley, however, undermines these recuperative aesthetics in Adonais as the text unveils a materiality that falls outside ideal afterlife. This failed translation of the body gains its own corpus, so to speak, in the Wandering Jew. Shelley’s Wandering Jew suffers the discipline—in every sense of that word—of official historiography. Bypassing both the Church and the graveyard, the Jew exists as a counter-narrative to Christian and secular progressivism—for the “secular” is but the uncanny reiteration of Christianity, the continuation of Christian history in the form of its ostensible elimination. Living his afterlife perpetually wounded, the Jew collapses progressive history by bearing trauma materially out of the past and into the future. But Shelley’s Gothic, historical thought does not stop there. Rather, in shifting between the figuration of history as ideal (canonical) and as Real (traumatic), Adonais gestures, further, toward history's materialization: an action of historicization that cannot be fully rationalized by either kind of narrative figuration, or even contained between the poles of figuration and disfiguration. While it is indeed uncanny that the past should live on—as a negativity—into a future its suppression ostensibly renders possible, the root of this relation lies even deeper, in the tissue of historicization itself: historicism, in its various narrative forms, aims not to sensitize but to insulate consciousness from the “matter” of history.