Gothic literature, poetry, and prose is that which deals with themes of death, the supernatural, sorrow, fear, loss, and more.
The word “gothic” can be applied to a movement of literary works that include fiction and poetry. There is no one style that is defined as singularly “gothic” nor is there one writer who exemplifies all the qualities of “gothic literature” (although some come close). The most specific part of the style is in relation to the subject matter, form, and other structural considerations that are less important. Gothic literature is usually considered as a sub-genre of Romantic literature.
Explore Gothic Literature
Elements of Gothic Literature
The name “gothic” provides the reader with a lot that they need to know to understand what this genre is all about. Works that are usually considered “gothic” include elements of melodrama, terror, mystery, dread, sorrow, dark and stormy settings, and even threatening and/or supernatural beings or elements. These stories, novels, and poems were not devoid of romance either, or elements of travel and adventure.
History of Gothic Literature
When considering whether or not something is “gothic” the time period in which it was written is often taken into consideration. The first example of the word “gothic” being used in regards to litter was in Horace Walpole’s story “The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story” published in 1765. But, at that time the word “gothic” didn’t mean what it does today. Rather, it meant something closer to “barbarous,” reaching back to the Middle Ages.
The earliest tales and poems in this style were written in the 18th century. These pieces looked back to medical Europe, using this period to craft the overall tone that the writer was looking for. Images and themes of the period were often incorporated. The poems, stories, and novels were often romantic and melodramatic, the settings were usually dark and usually psychologically tense. Writers of this period include Matthew Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, and Charles Brockden Brown.
Moving into the 19th century, the most prominent gothic writer of the period was Edgar Allan Poe who is often cited as the best writer on gothic themes. He combined many of the elements that we now associate with gothic literature into his poems and short stories. These include supernatural elements and beings, mental and physical fear, as well as death, loss, and sorrow. It is the work of Poe that many writers now look to today when they are seeking the influence of Gothic literature. Other 19th century gothic writers include Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and Sir Walter Scott. Although not all of their works might be considered “Gothic,” many are.
Influence of Gothic Literature
Writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ being one of the best examples), and others from the Romantic era often looked to Gothic literature in order to inform their own work. They took the dark images and combine them with their focus on nature and love.
Examples of Gothic Literature
Example #1 Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
A mysterious and disturbing poem, ‘Goblin Market,’ leaves a mark on all who read it. It is Rossetti’s most popular long poem and it tells the story, through twenty-eight stanzas, of two sisters who unfortunately follow the trail to a goblin market. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes,
Cover’d close lest they should look;
Laura rear’d her glossy head,
And whisper’d like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
After eating one of the fruits, Laura falls ill and is only saved from death when her sister, Lizzie, kisses the fruit juice from her cheeks.
Example #2 The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘The Lady of Shalott’ was published in 1833 and is one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s best poems. It ells the story, based around an Arthurian legend, of a woman who dies of unrequited love. Here are a few lines from the poem:
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
The lady suffers from a curse and is doomed to see the world through a mirror until her death. With the approach of Sir Lancelot, is soon tempted away from the mirror and loses her life.
Example #3 The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
‘The Raven’ is by far Poe’s most famous poem. It is also considered to be one of the best examples of Gothic poetry ever written. Here are a few lines from this piece:
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.
The poem is long, supernatural, dark, and filled with fear and uncertainty—all elements of the sub-genre. Poe’s raven, calling out “Nevermore” is the most memorable image, the word haunting the narrator of the poem and helping to drive him towards madness.