Gothic Theme and Tone in Old and Contemporary Poetry

Preface

Gothic literature is a genre that is built on horror and romance. In this regard, gothic themes border on love, dreams and grim aspects of life, notably death. Although it was initially a feature of novels, gothic themes are evident in both old and contemporary poetry. In addition to the thematic concerns, this paper will also examine aspects of gothic tone prevalent in the poems.

The poems are To One in Paradise and Serenade by Edgar Allan Poe, Go to the Grave and Address to the Moon by Nataniel Hawthorne and The Maldive Shark and Shiloh – a Requiem Begotten by Herman Melville. The two poems by Poe intertwine dreams and love, suggesting that the two human phenomena may be interrelated. Hawthorne depicts, though subtly, the grim theme of death in the poems selected. The theme of death also runs rampant in Melville’s poems, The Maldive Shark and Shiloh – a Requiem.

The selected poems are rife with the extensive use of specific figurative language that points to their gothic aspects. Figurative language in the poems includes use of imagery, symbolism, alliteration and, to a greater extent, irony. Through these styles, the poets are able to explore certain critical aspects of human nature that border on the gothic level.

Gothic themes

The two poems by Poe grapple with the all-consuming theme of love and its attendant heartaches. In as much as love is supposed to be a source of happiness and joy, Poe brings to the fore the problems associated with the strong feeling of affection. The poem To One in Paradise highlights the loneliness faced by the speaker when the object of their love passes on: “The light of Life is o’er” (Poe, “To One in Paradise” stanza 3.2).

The second poem is a love poem addressed to Adeline, the speaker’s love: “Enthralling love, my Adeline” (Poe, “Serenade” line 17). The speaker looks forward to breaking his loneliness as he anticipates meeting the love of his life: “Thy lover’s voice tonight shall flow” (Poe, “Serenade” line 19).

Hawthorne’s poems tackle the theme of death. In the poem Go to the Grave, death is discussed through the imagery of the grave. However, the speaker consoles himself with the hope of life after death: “Where they will dwell through endless time / Who here on earth their Maker serve” (Hawthorne, “Address to the Moon” lines 8- 9).

Self-consolation is usually an easy refuge for those devastated by the death of a loved one. The speaker seeks to fortify himself by the assertion that man is but clay: “Learn that we are but dust and clay” (Hawthorne, “Address to the Moon” line 5). This points to the inevitability of death and so, people have to be ready for it.

The second poem by Hawthorne, Address to the Moon, is a nostalgic effusion directed to the moon. The moon has been used symbolically to represent the unfulfilled aspirations in people’s lives: “For who would wish a fairer home” (Hawthorne, “Go to the Moon” line 11). A home on the moon is clearly beyond the reach of the speaker – or any other person for that matter. This is a manifestation of man’s inner wishes that characterize their fantasy-oriented minds.

The poem also makes an allusion to death: “Departed spirits find their rest” (Hawthorne, “Go to the Moon” line 10). It may be assumed that the speaker has lost somebody so dear to him. Due to the resulting loneliness, the persona resorts to watching the moon. It is important to note that the motif of spirits is a major feature of gothic literature.

The theme of death is further advanced in the poem Shiloh – a Requiem by Melville. Death is occasioned by a deadly fight at the church of Shiloh: “That followed the Sunday fight” (Melville, “Shiloh, a Requiem” line 8). So serious is the brawl that a few people lose their lives in the process: “… dying foemen mingled there” (Melville, “Shiloh, a Requiem” line13).

It is a rather horrendous scene that readers are treated to as deathly silence reigns at Shiloh: “But now they lie low / While over them the swallows skim / And all is hushed at Shiloh” (Melville, “Shiloh, a Requiem” line 17-19). This is quite in keeping with the essence of gothic literature, which thrives on terror and mystery. It is mysterious that the men should be “foemen” (enemies) in the morning, but friends in the evening, at which time the harm has already been done.

Aspects of gothic fiction are also evident in the poem, The Maldive Shark by Melville. The poet’s use of irony is worth noting. Although the Maldive shark is seemingly harmless, the poet’s deliberate choice of diction betrays the dangerous nature of the animal. The shark has a “ghastly flank” and “serrated teeth” (Melville, “Maldive Shark” line 7 & 9), making it the least “phlegmatic” fish in the sea.

It follows that the shark can easily cause death because he is “a pale ravener of horrible meat” (Melville, “Maldive Shark” line 16). The poem also introduces the issue of fate in the life of the shark. It seems that fate guides the shark to its prey. Most of its victims usually find “an asylum in the jaws of Fates” (Melville, “Maldive Shark” line 12).

The dream motif is another critical aspect of the gothic genre. It is a common feature of Poe’s poetry. In the two poems selected for this study, the dream motif is quite significant. In the poem To One in Paradise, the unexpected departure of the speaker’s love renders their celebrated love life dreamlike. This suggests that it may not have lasted for long. It also features in Serenade: “My words the music of a dream” (Poe, “Serenade” line 21). This is the romanticism part of gothic literature.

Gothic concerns are also evident in contemporary poems and songs. This is aptly exemplified in Jesse Collin Young’s song Darkness, Darkness. In this song, the allusion to death is clearly unmistakable: the speaker aspires for an endless night in darkness. The speaker is desperately in search of a long term solution to their earthly problems. This can only be found in unfathomable darkness, which can only be achieved through death.

The song also engenders the issue of alienation and loneliness. These are key aspects of gothic thematic concerns. The speaker attempts to alienate himself from the harsh reality. The alienation drives the speaker into the rather bizarre conclusion that they would find refuge in eternal darkness.

Gothic tone

Gothic tone has been achieved through the use of various figures of speech. The most poignant figure of speech employed is irony. In the poem To One in Paradise, it is ironical that the speaker is “aghast” in spite of the feeling that their love is in paradise. The irony here emphasizes the great pain people experience upon losing their loved ones to the grim reaper. Irony is also present in Hawthorne’s poem Go to the Grave where the grave is the ultimate end of life, but the poet claims that to some, it is a road to eternal life.

Symbolism and imagery have also been employed to enhance the gothic atmosphere in the selected poems. The moon, in Address to the Moon, is a symbol of what can never be achieved. It may be a symbol of love as well, depending on the situation. It also points to the loneliness that individuals sometimes endure in the absence of their loved ones.

Conclusion

Gothic themes and tone is becoming a common feature in poetry, as well as other forms of art. It is characterized by the portrayal of horror and romanticism. Horror is depicted through death, loneliness and alienation, while romanticism is achieved through love poetry. As can be seen, the poems by Poe present both love and horror. The same applies to Hawthorne and Melville.

Aesthetically, gothic themes and tone are quite significant as they make for interesting and influential poems. It engages the reader in a very powerful manner, and this enables the readers to digest the poems; hence, fulfilling the aims of the respective poets. Gothic poems, consequently, leave a long lasting impression in the minds of the readers.

Finally, gothic poetry should be encouraged as it provides the literary artists with sufficient room to exercise poetic freedom while at the same time maintaining focus on their critical roles of unmasking that which is hidden from the layman’s eye. More research should therefore be conducted in this important area of poetry.

Works cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Address to the Moon. PoetryArchive.com, 2002. Web. 26 November, 2011.< http://www.poetry-archive.com/h/address_to_the_moon.html>.

—.Go to the Moon. PoetryArchive.com, 2002. Web. 26 November, 2011. .

Melville, Herman. The Maldive Shark. n.p, n.d. Web. 26 November 2011. .

—. Shiloh, A Requiem. n.p,1862. Web. 26 November 2011. .

Poe, Edgar A. To One in Paradise. Poetry Foundation, 2011. Web. 26 November 2011. .

—. Serenade. The Complete Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Web. 26 November 2011. .