Townshend, "Gothic Visions, Romantic Acoustics"
Gothic Technologies: Visuality in the Romantic Era
Gothic Visions, Romantic Acoustics
Dale Townshend, University of Stirling
The nature of the relationship between Gothic romance and the rise of "high" Romantic aesthetics is something that has long perplexed the scholarly tradition.1 And yet, what has not been sufficiently explored is the extent to which Romanticism, certainly in its earlier Wordsworthian and Coleridgean manifestations, distanced itself from the frantic imaginings of the Gothic romancer through effecting a shift from the eye to the ear, from sight to the auditory field as the privileged organ and field of aesthetic perception and appreciation. While some eighteenth-century theorists had been keen to elide all perceivable differences between the senses of vision and hearing—Charles Avison's influential An Essay on Musical Expression of 1753, for instance, had strenuously defended the parallels between the auditory field of music and painting's visual aesthetic—other prominent eighteenth-century thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were struck by their overwhelming differences.2 These and other such accounts of the insuperable distinctions between the aesthetic subject's ability to see and to hear were firmly installed at the heart of early Romantic discourse: synaesthesia, the veritable confusion of the senses in later writers such as Keats notwithstanding, Romantic aesthetics was characterised by a concerted privileging of the voice over the intense visual technologies of contemporary Gothic romance. Although the lyrical imaginings of, say, Wordsworth are by no means lacking in a sense of the visual, much of what has subsequently been taken as Romanticism's most important aesthetic manifestos stake out their differences from the frequently avowed monstrosities of Gothic through a self-conscious rejection of its intensely visual aesthetic, establishing in its place sound and the ear which hears it as the privileged organ of imaginative communication.3
This movement away from sight is consistent with the broader tendencies identifiable in British Romantic aesthetics at large—as Gillen D'Arcy Wood's study The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860 (2001) has argued, the aesthetic practices of writers such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Keats were based upon a heart-felt rejection of the visual technologies of their day: "Romantic ideology was constructed not in opposition to the enlightenment rationalism of the eighteenth century, but as a reaction to the visual culture of modernity being born" (7). However, that the Romantic reaction against modern technologies of the visual extended to the contemporary appetite for Gothic romance is an avenue of investigation that D'Arcy Wood leaves largely unexplored. And yet, this particular aspect of the Gothic/Romantic relation assumes particular significance when one considers the extent to which the primary architects of Romantic aesthetics were writing about, and responding to, Gothic at a time when the form's already strongly visual qualities were assuming more poignant, even "urgent" manifestations: the proliferation of Gothic chapbooks, bluebooks and shilling-shockers from the mid 1790s onwards confronted the Romantic literati with nothing less than an assault upon their already nervously engaged sense of visual perception. Illustration, of course, was particular to chapbook and bluebook versions of Gothic, and in them, lurid engravings and woodcuts replaced the poetic and lyrical components of, say, Radcliffe's lengthy three-volume romances. As Frederick S. Frank observes, "It was the illustrator's task to select the most emetic, erotic, or sensationally supernatural episode in the chapbook, then pictorialize it to lure the Gothic consumer. If no such satisfactory horrific event could be located by the illustrator, the artist then fabricated his own" ("Gothic Gold" 297). Variously dispersed throughout the chapbook as frontispiece, title page or even intra-textual illustration, it was through these images that some of the most memorable scenes of Gothic romance achieved their most intense visual realisations.
Even beyond a direct concern with these visually illustrated versions of Gothic, it is easy to see that what was primarily at stake in most Romantic indictments of Gothic romance was the form's penchant for lurid, intensely visual aesthetic description. In his review of Lewis's notorious fiction in the Critical Review of February 1797, Coleridge took little care to disguise his repugnance for The Monk's disturbing visuality. Situating its apparent "gaudiness" well beyond any sense of what might constitute the aesthetically appropriate, Lewis's romance was denounced by Coleridge as a malevolent network of "libidinous minuteness," an intricate web which, once activated, articulated for even its most suspecting of readers a range of "powerful stimulants" and "meretricious attractions." Disavowing its textual fabric of "voluptuous images" as "a provocative for the debauchee" (Norton 298), The Monk, for Coleridge, embodied the ghastly potential to lead its readers way beyond the safe confines of what Robert Miles has referred to as the hygienic self, that discursive constellation of ideas which regarded the human subject as being ever-vulnerable to a concerted corrosion, corruption or disfigurement by any perceivable manifestations of desire.4 Here, the assumptions of the Associationist paradigm are paramount, and Coleridge himself discloses his reliance upon the Associationist principles of Hobbes, Locke, Hartley and others in his review of Lewis. Like books of even the most spotless moral intent, the intense visual prurience of The Monk, it was feared, could serve as the first link in a metonymic chain which, through the interminable links of association, would shuttle its readers into the dangerous terrain far beyond the limits of the hygienic self: "The most innocent expressions might become the first link in the chain of association, when a man's soul had been so poisoned; and we believe it not absolutely impossible that he might extract pollution from the word of purity, and, in a literal sense, turn the grace of God into wantonness" (Norton 299).
Albeit without particular reference to Lewis, Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) had expressed similar misgivings in relation to the contemporary appetite for Gothic romance. Despite his self-professed claims in the Preface to illustrate and explain, through verse, the ways "in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement" (597), Wordsworth was rather particular about the precise forms that these more legitimate modes of excitement might take. In fact, given the subject's dangerous propensity for unlimited mental association, Wordsworth, like Coleridge, seems keen to disqualify most modes of visual stimulation from his examination of alternative notions of poetic stimulation: "the human mind," he insists, "is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants" (599). Given the contemporary taste for visual stimulation embodied in the popular cultural success of the Gothic romance during the 1790s, the promotion and defence of salutary, non-visual forms of aesthetic excitement have become for Wordsworth in 1802 nothing less than a matter of urgency. As he opined, the reader's sensitivity to excitement had been numbed, dulled and anaesthetised by a certain over-exposure to the outrageous visual stimuli of the Gothic: "The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear [sic] and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.—When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble effort with which I have endeavoured to counteract it [. . .]" (599-600). For Wordsworth, then, appropriate notions of poetic excitement should reside in the striking up of a fine balance between stimulation and aesthetic pleasure, in the setting up of a careful equilibrium between sustainable forms of excitement, on the one hand, and a sense of bearable or palatable enjoyment on the other: "The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an over-balance of pleasure" (609). But as the Gothic so clearly attested, the effect of too visual an engagement was inevitably to take the artwork into a place well beyond the limits of pleasure as they had been laid down through the powers of Romantic consensus and collaboration.
In Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge rearticulated some of his earlier reservations concerning the dangers of Gothic romance's visual aesthetic in terms applicable to the risible material of the circulating library. In a footnote to the third chapter, Coleridge, through reference to the camera obscura, characterised the reading of Gothic romance as a form of indolent day-dreaming, a mode of vacant phantasmagoric reverie that was as far removed from the labour-intensive engagements of respectable "reading" as conceivably possible:
For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole materiel [sic] and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man's delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. (32)
As Terry Castle has argued, the camera obscura, one of the most popular modes of visual entertainment within late eighteenth-century culture, was centrally inscribed within the rise of Gothic fiction.5 Radcliffe herself invokes the camera obscura during a characteristic description of the European landscape in volume three of her later romance The Italian (1797):
Lofty palms and plantains threw their green and refreshing tint over the windows, and on the lawn that sloped to the edge of the precipice, a shadowy perspective, beyond which appeared the ample waters of the gulf, where the light sails of feluccas, and the spreading canvas of larger vessels, glided upon the scene and passed away, as in a camera obscura. (292)
For Coleridge, however, the reading of Gothic was indistinguishable from the other oxymoronic forms of "idle activity" which included gaming, swinging on a chair, snuff-taking, petty quarrelling, smoking, and the scrutinising of printed advertisements in public houses on rainy days (32). Variously cited as phantasm, delirium and dream, the technologies of contemporary popular entertainment were repeatedly denounced by the early Romantics for their visual intensity, be they in the form of Gothic romance or the spectacular visions of the camera obscura.
To a certain extent, these reservations seem well-founded: what has subsequently been identified as the so-called "masculine" strain within Gothic writing of the 1790s does indeed frequently consist of little more than a sustained foray into those realms of dangerous attraction constituted by the field of intense visual stimulation. In The Monk, for instance, Father Ambrosio's gazed initially takes the place of touching, and as the substitute for the penis which his clerical vows of celibacy have sought to disengage and render inactive, it serves, at least prior to his acts of fornication and incestuous rape, as the perverse means through which he penetrates another. Even Ambrosio's rape of his sister is couched in visual terms, the monk lustily "gazing on his devoted prey" (379), physically restraining her while "gazing upon her with gloting eyes" (382), and the terrified Antonia imploring him to avert his licentious gaze from her: "'Do not look on me thus! Your flaming eyes terrify me! Spare me, Father! Oh! spare me for God's sake!'" (381). To desire in The Monk is to gaze, and to gaze, to move inexorably along the line of metonymic associations that runs from the Madonna, through Matilda and her orb-like breast, to incestuous embrace, punishment and eventual death. The point to be made here, though, is that, in their various reactions to the Gothic's intensely visual mode, Wordsworth and Coleridge, in both theory and poetic practice, had already begun to articulate an aesthetic alternative. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth, having condemned the frantic forms of visual excitement embodied by the contemporary appetite for Gothic romance, set about the recuperation of safer, more desirable notions of excitement as the basis for his own poetic endeavour. Given Gothic's flooding of the literary marketplace during the 1790s, it is crucial that Wordsworth approach his undertaking with a firm sense of the differences between good and bad aesthetic excitement, salutary and non-salutary forms of stimulation in mind, intending to counteract the effects of the latter through the provision of his safer, altogether more hygienic poetic alternative. His objectives in this respect are unequivocal:
reflecting upon the magnitude of the general evil, I should be oppressed with no dishonourable melancholy, had I not a deep impression of certain inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind, and likewise of certain powers in the great and permanent objects that act upon it, which are equally inherent and indestructible; and did I not further add to this impression a belief, that the time is approaching when the evil will be systematically opposed, by men of greater powers, and with far more distinguished success. (600)
But it is ultimately to sound and to the aesthetic engagement of the ear that Wordsworth in the Preface turns, proposing that the primarily auditory effects of poetic rhythm and metre, if nothing else, might serve as a corrective to the visual stimulations of the Gothic romance: "Now the co-presence of something regular, something to which the mind has been accustomed in various moods and in a less excited state, cannot but have great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling, and of feeling not strictly and necessarily connected with the passion" (609). If vision in the Gothic had lead the form into the reaches of dangerous enjoyment well beyond the palatable limits of aesthetic pleasure, Wordsworth was of the opinion that poetic metre, the careful engagement and stimulation of auditory sensation, would restore to the aesthetic realm its compromised sense of safety and moral integrity.
This strategic mobilisation of sound as both sensory and aesthetic antidote to the passionate excesses of Gothic visibility is clearly illustrated in Wordsworth's later poem "On the Power of Sound," composed between 1828 and late 1829, and published in 1835. As an extended apostrophising of the power of sound and the organ of auditory perception which hears it, Wordsworth renders sound more metaphysical than spectral, not so much ghostly as supernatural, variously citing it as "a Spirit aerial" (1) or "Invisible Spirit" (17), the powers and functions of which are nothing short of "etherial" (1). As is the earlier poem "Power of Music" (1806, 1807), in which he commends the music of a blind fiddler on a busy Oxford Street for the sheer magnitude of its effects on passers-by, it is the extent to which sound is invisible, the extent to which it entirely eclipses, outruns and exceeds the field of visibility, that lends to it its supernatural qualities: as Wordsworth rhetorically enquires, "Point not these mysteries to an Art / Lodged above the starry pole; / Pure modulations flowing from the heart / Of divine Love, where Wisdom, Beauty, Truth / With Order dwell, in endless youth?" (108-112). Sound has stepped in to assume the place to which the eye, utterly circumscribed by the limitations of scope, light and perspective, cannot extend itself—as John Hollander puts it, "Sound pierces darkness, whereas light seems to have no effect upon silence. It is sounds, rather than illuminations, which seem to awaken us from sleep, and which can invade our dreams" (78). Consequently, in "On The Power of Sound," auditory perception serves for Wordsworth as the invisible vehicle of truth, a reminder of mortality that, as earth falls on a coffin lid, is far stronger in its auditory versions than in even the most vivid of Gothic visualisations:
To life, to life give back thine ear:
Ye who are longing to be rid
Of Fable, though to truth subservient, hear
The little sprinkling of cold earth that fell
Echoed from the coffin lid;
The Convict's summons in the steeple knell. (153-158)
The power of sound and the positive values attributed to auditory perception celebrated in this later poem might retrospectively serve as, variously, a defence or manifesto for the treatment of sound as throughout Wordsworth's later poetry, from the thirteen-book version of The Prelude (1805), through to the lengthy The Excursion of 1814. As Geoffrey Hartman has argued, an account of the auditory field is crucial to a consideration of much of Wordsworth's poetry.6 David P. Haney, too, identifies "an explicit priority of the aural to the visible" (183) in the later Wordsworth, while John Hollander has argued for the presence of an "inner ear" in the poetry, an auditory equivalent to the primarily visual aesthetics of the celebrated spots of time (46). Certainly, this would seem to be the case in the poem "Nutting," composed in 1798 and published in 1800, in which the persona describes an act of nut-gathering in a natural grove of hazels that has remained unseen, or utterly undefiled by the penetrating effects of vision. Within this scene of curtailed visibility—emphatically this is "A Virgin scene" (19) only because it has remained "unseen by any human eye" (30)—the experience of the speaker remains for the most part one of lucid auditory recall: "I heard the murmur and the murmuring sound, / In that sweet mood when pleasure loves to pay / Tribute to ease, and, of its joy secure / The heart luxuriates with indifferent things" (37-40). The Second Book of The Prelude at once echoes and reinforces these sentiments, presenting the young Wordsworth as being sublimely transported by the powers of auditory perception which have remained entirely "unprofaned" by the visual field of the image:
For I would walk alone,
In storm and tempest, or in starlight nights
Beneath the quiet Heavens; and, at that time,
Have felt whate'er there is of power in sound
To breathe an elevated mood, by form
Or image unprofaned; and I would stand,
Beneath some rock, listening to sounds that are
The ghostly language of the ancient earth,
Or make their dim abode in distant winds. (II, 321- 329)
As such, sound serves as catalyst to the persona's powers of imaginative Vision, a mode of poetic engagement that, though nominally located within the sense of sight, metaphorically appropriates vision for a sublime sense of poetic genius. In Book Seven of The Prelude, the eye of visual perception has been rendered "weary" by the phantasmagoric flow of life in the city of London. Echoing the passivity of the viewer invoked in Coleridge's condemnation of Gothic's camera obscura, the ghastly flow of low pursuit in London passes before the eye of the weary spectator as a phantasmatic, even narcotic form of reverie:
An undistinguishable world to men,
The slaves unrespited of low pursuits,
Living amid the same perceptual flow
Of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, and no end [. . .]. (VII, 700-706)
D'Arcy Wood's reading of Book Seven has raised the intriguing suggestion that Wordsworth in passages such as this was expressing his wearied dissatisfaction with the spectacular images of the natural world offered by Robert Barker's panorama in Leicester Square, a clear manifestation of what, for Wood, is the far-reaching Romantic rejection of the visual technologies of early nineteenth-century modernity (99-120). At other moments in The Prelude, the celebration of the power of sound leads Wordsworth to an outright condemnation of sight as a form of sensory despotism, a sensory or perceptual form of tyranny against which a veritable synaesthesia ought to militate:
The state to which I now allude was one
In which the eye was master of the heart,
When that which is in every state of life
The most despotic of our senses gained
Such strength in me as often held my mind
In absolute dominion. (II, 171-176).
As David P. Haney has argued, Wordsworth provides at least two alternatives to the veritable "tyranny" (178) of visual perception in The Prelude, the one being sub-Platonic notions of the poetic imagination and its related powers of Vision,7 the other the privileging of sound and the field of auditory perception. Either way, it is the perceived despotism and degeneracy of ordinary visual perception against which the later Wordsworth self-consciously positions himself. Certainly, if the later sonnet on "Illustrated Books and Newspapers" (1846) is anything to go by, the possibility remains that Gothic, particularly in its most luridly visual chapbook versions, constituted one particular source of the persona's general dissatisfaction with the interruption of the printed word by the illustrated image. His challenge to printed "Discourse" (1) is unequivocal: "Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!" (12), lest sound and the ear which hears it be entirely eclipsed by the cheap field of the visual: "Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear / Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!" (13-14).
Of course, Romanticism's privileging of sound over the Gothic aesthetic of heightened visual engagement is most concretely realised in the figure of the Aeolian harp, that eighteenth-century household toy which served, in John Hollander's words, as "the basis of a profound and widespread trope for imaginative utterance, and a kind of mythological center for images of combining tone and noise, music and sound" (57). Although Wordsworth had invoked a similar figure in "The Vale of Esthwaite" and "The White Doe of Rylstone," it was in the poetry of Coleridge that the Aeolian harp was to assume some of its most enduring Romantic associations. In "The Eolian Harp. Composed at Clevedon, Somersetshire" (1795), for instance, the eponymous lute involuntarily offers forth
a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle dales from Faery Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dropping flowers
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause nor perch, hov'ring on untam'd wing. (20-25)
For Coleridge, the Aeolian harp of the Conversation Poems (1795-1798) stands in the same favourable relation to the camera obscura invoked in the later Biographia Literaria (1817) as poetry does to Gothic romance, nature to culture, organic inspiration to the contrived technologies of mainstream popular entertainment. If Gothic romance is the camera obscura, the verse of Coleridge and his sympathisers is the auditory alternative that is the Aeolian harp. In "The Nightingale," Coleridge exploits the connections between the Aeolian harp and the nightingale, that other crucial metaphor for the Romantic imagination, through describing the bird's lyrical outpourings "As if one quick and sudden Gale had swept / An hundred airy harps!" (81-82). Here too, sound replaces vision as does Romantic aesthetics the frantic imaginings of the Gothic romancer. Together with the Aeolian harp, the nightingale in all its classical and natural associations serves to place sound at the centre of the poetic endeavours of both Coleridge and Keats. Yet what seems paradoxical about Coleridge's employment of sound in "The Eolian Harp" as an appropriate metaphor for the workings of the imagination is the sense of poetic passivity and inactivity that it encodes. If the camera obscura of Gothic romance had been rejected by Coleridge primarily on the grounds of the indolent reverie it induces, the poetic processes metaphorically enacted by the lute stray dangerously close to the idle passiveness of the Gothic spectator: "Full many a thought uncall'd and undetain'd, / And many idle flitting fantasies, / Traverse my indolent and passive brain / As wild and various, as the random gales / That swell or flutter on this subject Lute" (31-35). Similarly, in "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement" (1796), Coleridge apostrophises that quasi-sacred time "When the Soul seeks to hear; when all is hush'd / And the Heart Listens!" (25-26), his own auditory version of what, for Wordsworth in "Expostulation and Reply," was the "wise passiveness" of natural world's seemingly indolent observer (24). Nonetheless, sound, by virtue of its difference from visual perception alone, constitutes a positive alternative. Furthermore, the auditory field for Coleridge encompasses its very opposite, with deft alternations between silence and the perception of sound forming the basis for most of the Conversation Poems.8 This is no more so than in "Frost at Midnight" of 1798, in which "the sole unquiet thing" (16) in this scene of "strange / and extreme silentness" (9-10) is the rhythmic breathing of the slumbering infant and the thin blue flame that flickers gently on the grate.
For every Gothic phantasm, the sound of Romantic verse, to each florid imagining of the camera obscura, the soothing, lyrical sounds of the nightingale and Aeolian harp: Wordsworth and Coleridge constitute their high poetic aesthetic through the repudiation of the Gothic's visual excesses. Gothic is to Romantic what vision is to sound, technological contrivance to natural and organic effusiveness, the fevered monstrosities of popular culture to higher poetic forms of creative expression. And yet, what seems to complicate this all too neat system of differences is the extent to which Ann Radcliffe, for one, had already begun to negotiate and employ some of the defining characteristics of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Romantic aesthetic even amidst her self-conscious foray into the realms of so-called male Gothic writing in her later fiction The Italian: Or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents, A Romance (1797). Though arguably the most important exponent of the Gothic mode during the 1790s, Radcliffe's responses to Lewis in The Italian not only consolidated her fictional aesthetic as it had been developing steadily throughout The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), but also lead Gothic into a place remarkably closer in style, structure and ethos to the Romantic aesthetic and poetic practice than Wordsworth and Coleridge, at least, might have cared to acknowledge. It thus follows that, as James Watt in a different context has argued,9 we ought to consider Gothic writing of the late eighteenth century not as a monolithic discourse at all, but rather qualify our account of the Gothic/Romantic relation with an awareness of the crucial aesthetic differences attendant upon the two gendered manifestations of the form. When Wordsworth and Coleridge seek in both aesthetic theory and practice to resist the intensity of Gothic's visual technologies, they stand in opposition primarily to Lewis and other fictions of the so-called "male" Gothic tradition. Female Gothic fictions in the tradition of Radcliffe, by contrast, seem already to have effected some of the definitive moves and gestures of the nascent Romantic aesthetic. Indeed, critical claims to the composition of The Italian in late 1796 aside,10 the possibility always remains that Radcliffe, in setting out to provide a corrective response to Lewis in The Italian, was well versed in Coleridge's condemnation of the visuality of Lewis's fiction in February 1797 before—or at least while—she wrote. But even if, following the Monthly Magazine and British Register, the first edition of the text did indeed appear as early as December 1796, it is not inconceivable that Radcliffe undertook the corrections to the second edition of 1797 with Coleridge's distaste for the visual firmly in mind: as Robert Miles's edition of The Italian argues, Radcliffe's revisions to the second edition often involve the elevation of the aural over the visual (xxxviii).
The precise nature of the patent intertextual relations between Lewis and Radcliffe has generated a considerable amount of critical interest, from Ellen Moers's coining of the term "female Gothic" in Literary Women (1977), through the work of Kari J. Winter, Robert L. Platzner, Syndy M. Conger, Robert Miles, Rictor Norton and others.11 However, as exhaustive as critical accounts of the Radcliffe/ Lewis relation might seem, what has not been sufficiently documented are the ways in which the relation between them turns upon the differences between the eye and the ear, the crucial subjective functions that might be established and maintained through differences in the field of sensory perception. As argued above, though, the distinctions between vision and auditory perception also inform the aesthetic divide between Gothic and Romantic, prose romance and high poetic form, to the extent that the broader distinctions between Gothic and Romantic replicate themselves within Gothic writing itself, rendering fictions of the Radcliffean school closer to the aims and objectives of the Romantic literati. In Keats's memorable phrasing, she was "Mother Radcliffe," for Scott she remained the first poetess of Romantic fiction, for Nathan Drake she was nothing less than the Shakespeare of Romance Writers: as Watt has argued, Radliffe was almost routinely exempted from the attacks to which most other Gothic romancers were vulnerable (110). Perhaps one of the reasons for Radcliffe's curious ability to withstand the tide of acerbic Romantic reaction lay in her canny replacement of the phantasmatic spectacles of the camera obscura with a decidedly Gothic version of Romanticism's nightingale, lute or Aeolian harp.
Given the problematic notion of desire and perverse visual reverie as it is exercised through the gaze of Father Ambrosio in The Monk, it is fitting that Radcliffe's response to Lewis in The Italian systematically sets about the disciplining of the gaze's unruly, perverse desires and offering up in the place of curtailed visibility an emphasis upon hearing or auditory sensory perception. As the subtitle of the romance indicates, Radcliffe employs the trope of the confessional as the organising structural principle throughout the romance. This in itself serves as a means of encoding a significant sensory shift from the eye to the gaze, from the visual to the realm of the auditory: as the Prologue so clearly demonstrates, the ear of the confessor hears what he is not allowed to see. The remainder of Radcliffe's narrative, itself purporting to be the Paduan student's transcription of a lengthy confession of assassination, cannot avoid importing into itself a similar privileging of the voice and the ear which hears it over the eye of visibility: the very form of this romance is the written account of a confession that was originally heard. Radcliffe's privileging of sound at the expense of the visual is further illustrated in Radcliffe's execution of two of the most important narrative incidents in The Italian—the monkish apparition's continuous haunting of Vivaldi, and the death of Father Schedoni and his accomplice-turned-rival Nicola di Zampari at the narrative's close. The monkish apparition in the fort appears only in order to disappear, thwarting Vivaldi's attempts at seeing and identifying him (20). In place of the denied visual, all that Vivaldi and his servant are left with is a weak sense of auditory perception. At other moments in the narrative, the haunting of the apparition is achieved solely through the powers of the voice—en route to the Villa Altieri, for example, a voice entirely lacking in any visually identifiable origin emanates as if from nowhere, at once betraying the uncanny presence of Vivaldi's ghostly companion as well as maintaining his invisibility:
It was the voice of the monk, whose figure again passed before him. 'Go not to the villa Altieri,' it said solemnly, 'for death is in the house!'
Before Vivaldi could recover from the dismay into which this abrupt assertion and sudden appearance had thrown him, the stranger was gone. He had escaped in the gloom of the place, and seemed to have retired into the obscurity, from which he had so suddenly emerged, for he was not seen to depart from under the archway. Vivaldi pursued him with his voice, conjuring him to appear, and demanding who was dead; but no voice replied. (41)
The eye of readerly engagement in Lewis has become the ear of attentive listening in Radcliffe. The eventual death-by-poisoning of Father Schedoni and Nicola di Zampari, the other crucial incident in Radcliffe's narrative, also institutes sound in the place left vacant by visual deprivation. Radcliffe's recourse to poison as a means of effecting the death of two of her narrative's main protagonists is, in itself, significant: unlike the spectacular, bloody dismemberment and death-by-immolation of Ambrosio in the closing sections of The Monk, the visual engagement of the reader during Schedoni's death-by-poisoning is minimal, if not entirely non-existent, with the ghastly sounds emanating from the body of the poisoned subject emphasised in its place: "At the instant of his fall, Schedoni uttered a sound so strange and horrible, so convulsed, yet so loud, so exulting, yet so unlike any human voice, that every person in the chamber, except those who were assisting Nicola, struck with irresistible terror, endeavoured to make their way out of it" (402).
Most of the scenes in which Radcliffe reconfigures the subject's senses, both fictional and readerly, rely upon a direct allusion to some of the most visually vividly memorable scenes in The Monk—as Conger has argued, most of the important scenes in The Italian are to be read as "sustained counterstatements" (129) to equivalent scenes in Lewis's fiction. For instance, the most visually intense sequence in Lewis's narrative must surely be Ambrosio's lascivious gazing upon the slumbering body of his sister shortly prior to her abduction. In The Italian, however, it is Schedoni's guilt-ridden conscience that takes the place of the monk's visual eroticism, even as he, like Lewis's Ambrosio, draws aside Ellena's gaping nightgown in preparation for his final murderous stroke: "drawing aside the lawn from her bosom, he once more raised it to strike; when, after gazing for an instant, some new cause of horror seemed to seize all his frame, and he stood for some moments aghast and motionless like a statue" (234). The opening sections of the fiction, too, graphically recall the opening sequence of The Monk, in which Don Lorenzo and Christoval in the Church of the Capuchins, through their respective gazes, subject Antonia's lovely visage to an acute form of sexual scrutiny. Radcliffe's revision of this scene proceeds by means of a pointed intertextual reference to Lewis's original—it too is set in a Cathedral, and involves, at least in narrative terms, the initial encounter between two of the novel's main protagonists—yet subjects the gazing of Lewis's male subjects to a strict form of discipline—in Radcliffe's version, it is the voice of Ellena, and not her beauty which modestly remains forever concealed beneath her veil, that initially attracts Vivaldi: "The sweetness and fine expression of her voice attracted his attention to her figure, which had a distinguished air of delicacy and grace; but her face was concealed in her veil. So much indeed was he fascinated by the voice, that a most painful curiosity was excited as to her countenance, which he fancied must express all the sensibility of character that the modulation of her tones indicated" (5). Through the emphasis she places upon the timbre of the heroine's voice, Radcliffe preserves the modesty and decorum that have been flouted and compromised in the perverse, pornographic reveries of The Monk. Thus, while Lewis's Lorenzo and Christoval had gaze upon the unveiled Antonia completely unhindered, Radcliffe's Vivaldi, though also in part "determined to obtain, if possible, a view of Ellena's face" (5), shows a stronger sentiment of shame with regards to his indecent wish to gaze upon his love-object. Of course, it is in Vivaldi's heightened awareness of the impropriety of things visual that his moral worth resides, for unlike the perverse paths of visual reverie for which Ambrosio so indiscriminately opts, Radcliffe's hero is prudently committed to the disciplined vision of the hygienic self: later acknowledging the indecency of his initial wish to see Ellena, Vivaldi eventually capitulates to speaking with her (6). From this moment onwards, Radcliffe's fiction sets in place a hierarchically organised system of morality that demands, sequentially, the necessity of speaking before seeing, the virtues of interacting with the object of one's love interests through the voice prior to extending the relationship into the potentially more dangerous realms of the visual. This plays itself out in each one of Vivaldi's many visits of courtship to the Villa Altieri. Invariably, the powers of visual perception are frustrated, and the sound of Ellena's lute, her voice, or the memory of her singing offered up in their place. The romantic interaction between hero and heroine in The Italian is primarily undertaken through the voice and the ear that hears it. As the case of Ellena's experience in the Convent of San Stefano indicates, it is only within a community of celibate, heterosexual women—that is, a textual field and locale that has apparently been purged of all possible manifestations of erotic desire—that the gaze may circulate between individuals without any precautionary measures.
Thus, for all Radcliffe's pointed invocation of the camera obscura in the third volume of this romance, it is unsurprising that Coleridge in the Critical Review of June 1798, while denouncing the improbabilities of her account of the Inquisition, could generously concede that in The Italian, the author's penchant for intense visual description was far "less prolix." Here, Coleridge's opinions were well in keeping with those expressed in a number of contemporary reviews. The Monthly Mirror, for instance, observed how this fiction was far less visual than Radcliffe's earlier productions, noting how "The reader of the Italian is not perpetually harassed with overcharged descriptions of the beauties of nature," while Arthur Aikin in the Monthly Review of March 1797 maintained that, though not entirely deficient in "that luxuriant painting of natural scenery in which Mrs. Radcliffe delights," The Italian was markedly "less abundant than former publications."12 In sharp contrast to his condemnation of Lewis's prurient visual technologies of approximately sixteen months earlier, Coleridge could eventually claim that, "notwithstanding occasional objections, the Italian may justly be considered as an ingenious performance; and many persons will read it with great pleasure and satisfaction." Radcliffe's privileging of sound over sight had eventually succeeded in attaining for Gothic the coup of high Romantic approval.
And yet, for all its apparent affinities with a similar privileging of sound in the aesthetics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, what does seem to introduce a considerable tension between Radcliffe's Gothic mode in The Italian from the acoustics of Romantic verse is what appears to be Radcliffe's high levels of investment in the auditory field's marked lack of desire. For if there is one thing of which Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats seem convinced, it is the sheer readiness with which sound lends itself as a vehicle for the transmission of potentially dangerous impulses. Even Henry Home—better known as Lord Kames—in his Elements of Criticism (1761) had observed that sound, for all its worth, could also potentially serve as the compromising agent of moral and aesthetic degeneracy: "Music having at command a great variety of emotions, may like many objects of sight, be made to promote luxury and effeminacy, of which we have instances without number, especially in vocal music" (le Huray and Day 77). But as he rapidly conceded, "with respect to its pure and refined pleasures, music goes hand in hand with gardening and architecture, her sister arts, in humanising and polishing the mind, of which none can doubt who have felt the charms of music" ( 77), while a large portion of his discussion of music in Elements of Criticism is devoted to making the claim that, fortunately, the perceived beauties and pleasantries of music are entirely incommensurate with the dangerous sublimities of passion13 . Certain dangerous possibilities, though, remained, and although Romantic verse discloses more an attraction to the desires of music and sound than a fear of their compromising potential, Romanticism's auditory field seems at this point a far cry from the altogether purged, desire-less sense of sound in Radcliffe's later romance. In "On the Power of Sound," for instance, Wordsworth, like Lord Kames, addresses the "Regent of Sound" in order rhetorically to observe "How oft along thy mazes [. . .] have dangerous Passions trod!" (81-82), conceding how sound is often prone to the effects of "a voluptuous influence / That taints the purer, better mind" (87-88). In Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp," too, the Lute, "carress'd" by the wind, is thoroughly sexualised "Like some coy Maid half-yielding to her Lover" and much like the damsel with the dulcimer or the woman wailing for her demon-lover in "Kubla Khan," this lute "pours such sweet upbraidings, as must needs / Tempt to repeat the wrong" (12-17). The nightingale in Coleridge's poem by the same name utters forth its nocturnal "wanton song" (86) or "love-chant" (48) as "many a glow-worm in the shade / Lights up her love-torch" (68-69), while in Keats's thoroughly sexualised version of sound in, say, "Ode to Psyche," Virgin choirs "make delicious moan / Upon the midnight hours" (30-31). For Radcliffe, by contrast, sound recommends itself as a salutary, desire-less alternative.
Behind the Gothic's patent preoccupations with sight and visibility, then, lies a rich though critically neglected history of sound and the auditory sense. Indeed, at least twenty years prior to Horace Walpole's literary experiment in The Castle of Otranto, Thomas Warton's "The Pleasures of Melancholy," written in 1745 but published anonymously in 1747, drew what would prove to be an insuperable range of connections between sound, the auditory field, and the some of the most enduring conventions of Gothic romance—the taper, the darkness, the choir, the chant, the orison, the voice, the Gothic vault:
The taper'd choir, at the late hour of pray'r,
Oft let me tread, while to th'according voice
The many-sounding organ peals on high,
The clear slow-dittied chaunt, or varied hymn,
Till all my soul is bath'd in ecstasies,
And lapp'd in Paradise. Or let me sit
Far in sequester'd iles [sic] of the deep dome,
There lonesome listen to the sacred sounds,
Which, as they lengthen thro' the Gothic vaults,
In hollow murmurs reach my ravish'd ear. (196-205)
Thomas Gray's "The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode" (1751-1754) also figures sound in what, again, would later prove to be some of Gothic romance's most abiding conventions, describing the ear as the winding labyrinth through which echoes and anguished cries creep: "where Maeander's amber waves / In lingering lab'rinths creep, / How do your tuneful echoes languish, Mute but to the voice of anguish?" (69-72). And even while he and Coleridge criticised the Gothic for its heightened sense of visibility, Wordsworth, for one, seemed paradoxically aware of the extent to which it was ultimately the power of sound that lay at the heart of the Gothic aesthetic. Penetrating, as in Gray's Ode, the "mouldy vaults of the dull Idiot's brain" (100), music in "On the Power of Sound" is alone capable of penetrating the Gothic darkness of the labyrinth-like ear:
Intricate labyrinth, more dread for thought
To enter than oracular cave;
Strict passage, through which sighs are brought,
And whispers, for the heart, their slave;
And shrieks, that revel in abuse
Of shivering flesh; and warbled air,
Whose piercing sweetness can unloose
The chains of frenzy, or entice a smile
Into the ambush of despair [. . .]. (5-13)
In a more self-consciously Gothic context, the shift from the eye to the voice is swiftly effected in Anna Laetitia Aikin's short tale "Sir Bertrand: A Fragment," published in the collection Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose that was written with her brother John Aikin in 1773. The scene in the ruined "antique mansion" (3) is one of overwhelming darkness and profound visual obscurity. Replete with references to the "thick black clouds" (3) that obscure the nacreous moon, lights that faintly flicker and then instantly vanish, and the night which "was darker than ever" (3), the voice arises out of the gap rendered in Gothic within the field of dark visibility. As mysterious bells toll from the turret, Sir Bertrand is variously struck by "a loud shriek [which] pierced his ears" (4) and a "deep hollow groan" that resounds through the vault. Supplementing the gaze in those places to which visibility cannot extend itself, the mere prominence of sound and noise in late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction already seems to point to a certain blindspot within the visual field. Stepping in to remediate, correct and supplement the perceived weaknesses, dangers and inadequacies of the visual field, sound in Gothic is the ghost of failed and failing modern disciplinary technology—a spectre, though, often closer to the spirit of Romanticism than Wordsworth and Coleridge's vehement acts of Gothic exorcism would have us believe.
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1 Resisting earlier tendencies to reduce the connections between Gothic and Romantic writing to easy notions of historical confluence, influence, cause and effect, more recent critical attention has sought to address the relationship between them in more sophisticated terms. For instance, that first-generation romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge, exploited the conventions of Gothic writing even as they jettisoned them is a paradox that has been explored to great effect by Michael Gamer in Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation (2000). While, in David Punter's estimation, later Romantic poets such as Keats readily appropriated the "white Gothic" of medieval nostalgia so ardently defended by antiquarians such as Richard Hurd (Literature of Terror 103), Fred Botting has argued that, with the rise of Romanticism, Gothic in the work Blake and Shelley took an internal, subjective turn, at once displacing the Gothic's earlier concerns with power, evil and oppression onto a number of contemporary political scenarios (Gothic 92). For Steven Bruhm in Gothic Bodies, Gothic represents the defiant return of the corporeal pain repressed by the transcendent yearnings of the Romantic imagination, while most recently for Punter and Byron in The Gothic (2004), Romanticism and the Gothic are perceived as being implicated in a two-way process of exchange, a line of mutual influencing, shaping and re-shaping that runs incessantly from the political implications of Blakean Gothic, through the psychological spectres of Coleridge, politically once again in the work of the young Shelley, and most ambivalently in the relations to the aristocratic past in Byron (13-19). For an account of the Gothic's role in the broader Romantic "invention" of the literary, see Fred Botting and Dale Townshend, "General Introduction" in Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, Volume I.
2 In Chapter 16 of his Essai sur L'origine des langues, for instance, Rousseau is keen to emphasise the many points of difference between vision and hearing, colour and sound, the eye and the ear. His tract seems directed against those aesthetic tracts which had argued for the striking points of similarity between the two perceptual fields: "There is no sort of absurdity that has not been put forward during discussions about the physical causes which relate to the Fine Arts. Parallels have been found between sound and light, and these have instantly been seized upon, without reference to experience or reason. The search for a system has bedevilled everything. When we are unable to paint with the ears we decide to sing with the eyes. I have seen that famous keyboard on which they claim to make music with colours. Failure to recognise that colours owe their effect to permanence and sounds to successiveness shows a total misunderstanding of the workings of nature" (le Huray and Day 100).
3 In Wordsworth's poetry, the celebrated spots of time are nothing if not the creative projections out of, and into, an internal subjective screen. For an account of other aspects of Wordsworth's visual aesthetic, see, most notably, William Galperin's The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism, Harold Bloom's "Visionary Cinema of Romantic Poetry," Kenneth Johnston's "The Idiom of Vision," L.J. Swingle's "Wordsworth's 'Picture of the Mind'" and portions of Frank D. McConnell's The Confessional Imagination.
4 As Miles argues, it is the Associative Paradigm that lies at the heart of the late eighteenth-century Gothic subject, effectively rendering the hygienic self vulnerable to the threat of desire in and through the interminable chains of metonymic links and associations to which it subscribes. Although, with the possible exception of Hartley, associational theory received little formal philosophical representation, it was nonetheless one of the implications of Hobbesian and Lockean empiricism, and frequently resorted to in the late eighteenth-century as a means of accounting for, and understanding, the organisation of human knowledge. As Miles points out, Associational theory was generally widely accepted as the basis for much eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, and beyond that, as a plausible model even for the functioning of human consciousness (Gothic Writing 52).
5 See Castle's essay entitled "Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie."
6 See Geoffrey Hartman's seminal reading of Wordsworth's "soundscapes" in Wordsworth's Poetry, 1787-1814. Consult, too, Mary Jacobus's article "Apostrophe and Lyric Voice in The Prelude," Jeffrey C. Robinson's "The Power of Sound: 'The Unremitting Voice of Nightly Streams'", John Hollander in "Wordsworth and the Music of Sound," David P. Haney's "'Rents and openings in the ideal world': Eye and Ear in Wordsworth" J. Douglas Kneale's Monumental Writing: Aspects of Rhetoric in Wordsworth's Poetry, and Michael Privateer's Romantic Voices: Identity and Ideology in British Poetry, 1789-1850.
7 Kenneth R. Johnston, in fact, reads Romantic poetry in general as often involving a hasty passage from sight to the powers of imaginative Vision in the article "The Idiom of Vision." As such, however, Wordsworthian Vision for Johnston is never entirely without its relations to that which is simply visual or visible, and vise versa: "Wordsworth's vigilance against the tyranny of the bodily eye does not mean that the visual aspects of his visions can be separated from something in them conceived to be 'truly' visionary; such a separation was for him the ultimate tyranny, or trauma" (10).
8 See Jill Rubenstein's article, "Sound and Silence in Coleridge's Conversation Poems."
9 See James Watt's argument regarding the heterogeneity of Gothic in Contesting the Gothic: Fiction, Genre and Cultural Conflict, 1764-1832.
10 See Robert Miles's "Note on the Text" in his Penguin edition of The Italian, pages xxxvii-xxxviii.
11 For an account of the relationship between Ann Radcliffe and Mathew Lewis, particularly as this pertains to the distinctions between male and female Gothic, see Kari J. Winter's article "Sexual/Textual Politics of Terror: Writing and Rewriting the Gothic Genre in the 1790s"; Robert C. Platzner in "'Gothic Versus Romantic': A Rejoinder"; Robert Miles's essay "Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis"; Syndy M. Conger in "Sensibility Restored: Radcliffe's Answer to Lewis's The Monk"; and Rictor Norton in Gothic Readings: The First Wave, 1764-1840.
12 Again, see the broad range of contemporary reviews of The Italian included in the appendix to Robert Miles's Penguin edition of Radcliffe's text, pages 492-502.
13 As Lord Kames at one point in Elements of Criticism argues, music may never conceivably serve as the vehicle of undesirable passions: "Where the same person is both the actor and the singer, as in an opera, there is a separate reason why music should not be associated with the sentiments of any disagreeable passion, nor the description of any disagreeable object; which is, that such association is altogether unnatural: the pain, for example, that a man feels who is agitated with malice or unjust revenge, disqualifies him for relishing music or any thing that is pleasing; and therefore to represent such a man, contrary to nature, expressing his sentiments in a song, cannot be agreeable to any audience of taste" (ie Huray and Day 79).