Keats Goes Gothic

Laura R. Kremmel
South Dakota School of Mines & Technology

Re: Keats’s 14 March 1818 letter to Reynolds

In this letter, Keats playfully dodges the forces of nature (being “blown over and blown under”) but also harnesses those forces by evoking a name associated with one of the most controversial literatures of the time.

He writes, “for I am going among scenery whence I intend to tip you the Damosel Radcliffe—I’ll cavern you, and grotto you, and water-fall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous-sound you, and solitude you” (100).

The Romantic poets were of two minds about the Gothic: their opinions were inconsistent, and that inconsistency showed up in their poetry as much as in their criticism. The older Romantics, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth, were not shy in offering their disapproval of the trash lit of the day, which they claimed could be a dangerous influence on readers and a corrupting one on poetry. At the same time, they envied the popularity of the Gothic, all trying their hands at Gothic elements within their own work (though they would never admit it). The younger poets—Keats and Shelley, for example—were less cautious and mixed admiration with their frequent ridicule of what was—by its own admittance—an often-ridiculous literature. One Gothic writer who seemed to escape the mockery the rest of them faced was Ann Radcliffe, who championed rationality at the same time that her characters swooned over ghostly shadows and mysterious noises. Her work may have produced the same effects of supernatural tales, but they essentially warned of the dangers of superstition.

In “Superstition: An Ode,” a poem embedded in A Sicilian Romance (1809), Radcliffe writes:

Enthron’d amid the wild impending rocks,
Involv’d in clouds, and brooding future woe,
The demon Superstition Nature shocks,
And waves her Sceptre o’er the world below. (71)

Ann Radcliffe

Keats, then, gives Radcliffe an appropriate introduction, with a reference to being unable to “cosset your superstition.” This, after mentioning an accident dealing with parapets and falling objects (a “chimney-pot”). Both of these are classic, dangerous elements of the Gothic, particularly the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in which a giant helmet falls from the sky and crushes a young man within the first chapter. When the Gothic wind is blowing, balconies and falling objects are no joke. Keats’s lively tone might seem antithetical to discussing the literature of the dead, but he keenly replicates the spirit of the Gothic tradition and its sinister flippancy, at once dire and disturbing, but also humorous and kitsch.

As the Gothic writers have a reputation—rightfully-earned, in some cases—for prioritizing content over quality, it makes perfect sense that Keats would select one of the writers most respected for her writing. While other Gothic writers might have been more innovative, they were far more erratic, to be admired with caution by one such as Keats. Radcliffe was one he could satirize and admire all at once, credited with both rationality and craft. In fact, he would later refer to her in a letter to George Keats on February 14, 1819: “In my packet I shall send you the Pot of Basil, St. Agnes eve, and if I should have finished it a little thing called ‘Eve of St. Mark’–you see what fine Mother Radcliffe names I have–it is not my fault–I did not search for them” (286). She was clearly an influence on his work.

The first thing to notice in Keats’s list of Radcliffean noun-verbs is the performative act of nature upon the reader by the writer. It’s a playful inundation of pastoral and passive objects that Radcliffe uses to such excess that they become active, sometimes taking over the narrative for both characters and readers. The natural, untouched by human corruption, influences the minds of Radcliffe’s heroines the most, calming them or oppressing them, often bolstering their grief and sensibilities. So, to do any of these natural forms to someone is to do quite a lot to them. And, in Radcliffe, part of the active force of these scenes is in the pain-staking (sometimes pain-ful) detail. Here’s a snippet from The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794):

The aspect of the country now began to change, and the travelers soon found themselves among mountains covered from their base nearly to their summits with forests of gloomy pine, except where a rock of granite shot up from the vale, and lost its snowy top in the clouds. The rivulet, which had hitherto accompanied them, now expanded into a river; and, flowing deeply and silently along, reflected as in a mirror, the blackness of the impending shades. Sometimes a cliff was seen lifting its bold head above the woods and the vapours, that floated mid-way down the mountains; and sometimes a face of perpendicular marble rose from the water’s edge, over which the larch threw his gigantic arms, here scathed with lightning, and there floating in luxuriant foliage. (38-39)

And so it goes on. Keats’s line in his letter refers to the many passages like this: dramatic but indistinct. Many of Keats’s words are appropriately generalized terms, particularly the hyphenated ones, and are easily seen in passages like the one above (wood, water, immense-rock, and, if I had continued, the next Radcliffe lines are of solitude). Yet, curiously, Jane Stabler claims that many of these words (grotto and waterfall, in particular) were never included in any of Radcliffe’s texts (she also cites “immense rock” and “tremendous sound,” but I don’t think Keats meant these in a specific sense) (187). How could Keats make such a mistake?

And yet, his attribution of these words to an origin in which they never existed (a Radcliffe text) is pure Gothic. The Gothic is full of ghosts, but rather than ghosts with a strong sense of their own pasts, these are ghosts whose pasts never existed: they are hollow, insubstantial, copies of copies without origin. Jerrold Hogle famously called such an idea the “ghost of the counterfeit,” locating it first in The Castle of Otranto but tracing it in many other texts, as well. The idea is, simply, that those ideas that seem most firmly set are, in the end, proven to be fakes. And this makes them performative and unstable. For example, the Castle of Otranto is tyrannized by Manfred, a man who believes himself to be the lord of the castle but who turns out to be the descendent of a man of no nobility who murdered the real lord of Otranto. Thus, Manfred’s claim to power stems from a noble origin that never existed. The phrase, “ghost of the counterfeit” comes from the ghost of a painting of Manfred’s grandfather: the ghost of the copy (painting) of the false copy (feigned lord) without origin (no nobility). We see the same idea in every text claiming to be a “found manuscript.” In these hollow copies, Hogle claims, are buried anxieties about illegitimacy and nothingness. Yet, as I think the Gothic demonstrates, this fakery puts on a good show, one that proves itself to be meaningful, if not solid. Keats may not use Radcliffe’s exact words, but he builds a scene that conjures her (or perhaps her ghost) from out of the pages and into the world around him.

Other elements in the letter are appropriate juxtapositions to the Gothic: the oppression and confinement of the rain, a picnic that mixes both distress and recreation, a passing mention of the theater, and a literary character (Lydia Languish), who is “subject to sympathetic moisture,” a characteristic for which Radcliffe’s heroines are also known (fainting and weeping). This is absolutely a letter that Radcliffes us!

Laura R. Kremmel is an assistant professor in the Humanities Department at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She writes about the Gothic, British Romanticism, History of Medicine, Disability Studies, and horror movies. She is currently co-editing The Handbook to Horror Literature, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan.



Hogle, Jerrold E. “The Ghost of the Counterfeit in the Genesis of the Gothic.” Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, Rodopi, 1994, 23-33.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, Harvard University Press, 1958.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Oxford University Press, 2008.

—. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Penguin Books, 2001.

Stabler, Jane. “Ann Radcliffe’s Poetry: The Poetics of Refrain and Inventory.” Ann Radcliffe,       Romanticism, and the Gothic, edited by Dale Townshend and Angela Wright, Cambridge         University Press, 2014, 185-202.

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