Keats & Coleridge – Romanticism

A brief look at Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale and Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. What links them to the Romantic tradition?

In a letter to Benjamin Bailey (Nov 1817) Keats wrote ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.’ This is an interesting quote as it sums up one view of Romanticism as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Writers, artists, and composers during the Romantic period valued intuition over learning and imagination over doctrine. This is a direct contrast to the earlier Age of Enlightenment which valued both logic and science. The Romantics wanted their work to be for everybody (not just for the educated) and to bring back the spiritual with a new language connected to nature and beauty. It is with this view in mind that I would like to analyse two poems from this period and to demonstrate how their language and content links them as examples of ‘Romantic’ poetry.

In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ the speaker directs his address to a nightingale as a way of expressing an intense thought and feeling. ‘The first half of the ode shows how the speaker desires to escape the self and its human condition’ (Wolfson, 2001, p.91). Stanza one begins with thudding alliteration – a sense of melancholy. This is reinforced with ‘numbness’, ‘dull opiates’ and ‘sunk’. He is too happy in his happiness and is tipping over into sadness. In stanza two he longs for wine and the sensuous joys of summer. We see this in ‘tasting of Flora’, ‘country green’ and ‘sunburnt mirth!’ In both stanzas the poet is focusing on his own feelings and intuition rather than trying to apply reason and logic. These were important ideas to the ‘Romantics’ who valued nature and spontaneity and the importance of the individual self. Continuing with the analysis, we notice the mood shift in stanza four where he connects with the world of the nightingale and talks of light in both the literal and spiritual sense. This ‘experienced’ enchantment is intensified (in stanza five) with vivid images and references to different sensory experiences. We have sight: ‘white hawthorn’ and ‘pastoral eglantine’, fragrance (or smell): ‘the coming musk rose’, taste: ‘dewy wine’ and lastly hearing: ‘the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves’.  This intensity peaks in stanza six with a moment of complete happiness ‘now more than ever seems it rich to die’. In stanza seven he refers to the bird as a symbol of immortality and links legend, romance, the bible and the timelessness of the nightingale’s song. The repetition of the word ‘forlorn’ interestingly punctures the poem and here the speaker returns grounded to the original place. We are reminded of the important ‘Romantic’ principle of imagination through the elevation of the poets self – the contrast between earth v. heaven and stasis v. movement. In the final stanza the speaker’s soul returns to the earth from its visionary world gentle and dreamy, ending with two questions ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?’ which concludes nothing other than ‘the ode itself and its musical fellowship with a vanished nightingale’ (Wolfson, 2001, p.92).

Looking at the structure of the poem we notice the ode is composed of ten line stanzas: a Shakespearian sonnet-quatrain (abab) plus a Petrachan sestet (cdecde). According to Wolfson (2001) ‘this form subscribes to a metrical contract, against which a contrarian poet such as Keats could play the urgencies of passion and impulse. The ode is graceful and free and it is fluidly handled’. It builds to a climax and returns to earth gently. This is a wonderful example of a poem that focuses on the less tangible ‘Romantic’ areas of human experiences.

If we now consider Coleridge’s poem Frost at Midnight. We notice that the overriding concern of the speaker is his relationship with his infant son and his aspiration for him to have a better start in life. We notice ‘the silence of the house is pregnant with preternatural energy’ (Keanie, 2002, p.64) but it is a quality silence ‘the kind of silence that has absolutely nothing to do with loneliness, or emptiness; the kind of silence that actually empowers the consciousness’ (Keanie, 2002, p.64). An interesting ‘Romantic’ platform to begin our analysis of the ideas within the poem.

As with Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, nature plays an important part in ‘Frost at Midnight’ and it is used to great effect in the poem. The speaker is acutely aware of what is going on both inside and outside of the cottage. In stanza one he is hyper-aware and dwells on a mixture of intrusive thoughts ‘abstruser musings’ and mix of sensory information ‘inaudible as dreams’ ‘thin blue flame’ and ‘fluttered’. In addition to this the silence is broken twice by an ‘owlets cry’. These are important as they show the poet being both introspective and highly aware of his surroundings. He is using his imagination and internalising, two important ‘Romantic’ ideas. Stanza two is a recollection of his school days. We find ‘stirred’ and ‘haunted’ and ‘wild pleasures’. He also adds ‘supernatural’ qualities to his childhood memories as when he refers to the church bells as ‘sounds of things to come.’ In stanza three he comes back to the present and contrasts his upbringing in the city with images of nature and the sublime. He imagines his child growing up submerged in the awesomeness of nature ‘wander like a breeze/by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags/of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds.’ The poem also has a strong Christian element where nature represents the physical presence of God’s word. We notice this in ‘Himself in all, and all things in himself’. This is important as he links nature with the divine. The final stanza concludes with a message of hope for his child. It is full of optimistic gems from all the seasons. We find ‘summer and greenness’ the ‘robin redbreast betwixt tufts of snow’ and ‘the secret ministry of frost.’

The poem is a verse monologue. It was classed by Coleridge as one of his ‘conversational’ poems. According to Audet (1970) ‘much of the poems success derives from the tension created between the poet’s extreme emotion and his natural, conversational language’. The poem ‘has a restraint and naturalness of language which suits the rather simple events described. To obtain this naturalness, Coleridge has employed a flexible, easy-flowing blank verse’ (Audet, 1970). It is this conversational style that marks it as a truly ‘Romantic’ poem that can appeal to anybody no matter how educated or uneducated. It is full of natural imagery, human instinct and is considered by many to a seminal poem from this period.


AUDET, R.A. 1970. ‘Frost at Midnight’: The Other Coleridge [www] (6th Jan, 2012)

FERGUSON, M., SALTER, M.J., STALLWORTHY, J. 2005. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th edn. London: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 935-937 & pp. 810-811.

KEANIE, A. 2002. Student Guide to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Greenwich Exchange, pp. 62-64.

WOLDSON, S.J. 2001. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 90-93.


KRAUZE, A., SPENCER, L. 1997. Introducing the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd.

O’HARA, K. 2010. The Enlightenment. Oxford: One World Publications

WHITNEY, E. 2010. English Romanticism [www] (6th Jan, 2012)


Drift: Verses (1900) – Horatio Brown

I’ve decided to share with you today a small poem from Horatio Brown’s extremely uncommon anthology “Drift: Verses” which made a limited appearance in 1900. It was suppressed before publication due to its homoerotic nature. Brown spent most of his adult life in Venice, a dedicated aficionado of Italian history and young gondoliers.


[At a London Music]

Two rows of foolish faces blent

In two blurred lines; the compliment,

The formal smile, the cultured air,

The sense of falseness everywhere.

Her ladyship superbly dresses –

I like their footman, John, the best.


The tired musicians’ ruffled mien,

Their whispered talk behind the screen,

The frigid plaudits, quite confined

By fear of being unrefined.

His lordship’s grave and courtly jest –

I like their footman, John, the best.


Remote I sat with shaded eyes,

Supreme attention in my guise,

And heard the whole laborious din,

Piano, ‘cello, violin;

And so, perhaps, they hardly guessed

I liked their footman, John, the best.

Left to Themselves (1891)

Left to Themselves: Being the Ordeal of Philip and Gerald (1891)

By Edward Irenaeus Prime Stevenson

Known to scholars as the author of the first openly American gay novel, Edward Irenaeus Stevenson remains a largely forgotten and neglected writer. Over a decade before the publication of his ground breaking literary milestone, he published Left to Themselves a fascinating young adult novel, which in my humble opinion is a gem that deserves a revival. Stevenson writes with gusto as we follow the adventures of two boys, who united in romantic friendship, overcome the most incredible obstacles. It’s really hard to believe that such an enthralling novel with a shipwreck, an attempted kidnap, an equinoctial tempest and a relentless predator could have remained out of print for over a hundred years! It was reissued only earlier this year by the excellent Valancourt Books.



Patrick Sip, a seasoned tramp, is grumbling about life, after his fifth escape from the workhouse. He is asking himself what people find so attractive about nature when he can’t even get a morsel to eat except berries in season. He sees the twelve year old, well-to-do, Gerald Saxton, who is fishing and decides to harass him for his hamper. The startled boy sprints towards a farmhouse and the chase is only cut short by the intervention of an older boy, Philip Touchstone.

Philip and Gerald bond instantly on their wagon journey to the Ossokosee Hotel. Gerald notices how Philip becomes red in the face when he talks about his father. At the lodge they overhear General Sawtelle discussing Philip’s deceased father, and Philip decides it’s only fair that Gerald should hear the truth before they become firmer friends. It transpires that Mr. Touchstone was involved in the infamous Suburban Trust Company robbery for which he was later sent to prison. After his release he died of consumption. His wife also died, and Philip was left an orphan. The chapter concludes with a closer intimacy between the two boys, with Gerald declaring he doesn’t believe what people say about Philip’s father.

The following day Mr. Marcy and Gerald go to the river to watch the annual regatta. Gerald is excited and hopes to see Philip rowing for the Ossokosees crew. The Ossokosees have been beaten three consecutive times by the Victors, so many have turned up for the race. The race is beautifully narrated by the author and we see a glorious victory for the Ossokosee Club. At the end of the chapter we are told Philip and Gerald go to sleep, ‘Gerald with one hand under his yellow head, and the other just touching Philip’s arm’.

Mr. Marcy receives a letter from Gerald’s father requesting his presence in Nova Scotia. Philip is asked to escort Gerald on the long trip, and the boys are delighted with the idea. On their train journey to New York they fail to notice a strange man listening to their conversation. He reads the letter that Gerald has carelessly dropped and disappears. Minutes later the train arrives at the next station and the supposed ‘Mr. Hilliard’ greets the boys with some alarming news. His apartment has apparently been involved in a fire, and he suggests the boys come to the Windsor hotel for the night. Of course, Philip is suspicious, but Gerald thinks it will be fun! Thankfully, the train experiences engine troubles and stops for repairs. The passengers decide to stretch their legs until they are summoned back by the whistle. During the interval, ‘Mr. Hilliard’ sees to some business, and the boys explore an abandoned cellar. Suddenly, they hear the whistle, but they arrive too late and the train departs without them! Finding themselves in a quandary, they catch the adjacent freight train, and alight somewhere in up-town New York. They find Mr. Hilliard’s apartment and ask the butler where he is. Curiously, Hilliard is upstairs on the second floor, and it appears there was no fire! The boys are astonished when they meet the real Mr. Hilliard, and conclude the other must have been an imposter!

The next day Mr. Hilliard takes the boys to the Old Province steamer and they sail for Halifax. It’s a rough passage and the seasick Gerald retires to his cabin. Philip removes to the dining room where he notices the imposter ‘Hilliard’ sitting with a gentleman in the corner. Returning to the cabin, he finds that Gerald needs some ice for a headache. Philip locks Gerald in his room and goes looking for a porter. He meets the imposter and agrees to a private meeting. Philip learns that Belmont (the imposter) intends to kidnap Gerald. He has informed the captain and the authorities that Gerald is ‘his’ boy, and he plans to leave the ship at Martha’s Vineyard in the morning. Philip is outraged by this audacious story. Belmont says he will also accuse Philip of kidnap if he tries to interfere. After a prolonged battle of wills, Belmont says he will call the Captain and Mr. Arrowsmith, the mate, so they can decide who is bluffing. Suddenly, there is a terrifying explosion and Philip and Belmont are thrust together. After much commotion, the captain announces that the explosion (in the hold) has broken a hole in the bow and the steamer is sinking! In the ensuing chaos the boys are safely stowed with the secondmate in a little raft and pushed out to sea. Belmont attempts to board the same boat, but is stopped due to lack of room. During the journey they hear a distinct bell and realise they must be close to land. A lady on board then loses her balance and her baby is tossed into the water. In a desperate frenzy she upsets the entire raft, and everybody including the cargo gets cast into the sea! The only remaining passenger is Gerald ‘stopped by the gunwale’, and Philip who is holding on for his life. Eventually, Philip climbs back on board, but the excitement has been too much for Gerald and he swoons in Philips arms. The next day the newspapers publish the sinking of the steamer and both Philip and Gerald are reported drowned. However, the boys are quite alive, and after several days at sea they finally wake to a bright blue sky and see land in the distance. They then dock in a small cove and make their way towards a farmhouse.

Philip leaves Gerald resting while he heads to the farm. The doors and windows are wide open, but nobody is at home when he arrives. He decides to collect Gerald and take the liberty of resting for a while. Philip prepares some food and notices Gerald is feverish and listless. He puts him to bed, and heads to the area where they left their boat. The vessel is gone and after hours of talking gently to Gerald, they fall asleep, until the return of Mr. and Mrs. Probasco. The boys tell their story to the astonished couple, while Mrs. Probasco nurses Gerald. Philip and Mr. Probasco then devise a plan to sail over to the town on the following morning to dispatch letters and telegrams. Unfortunately, the next morning they wake to an equinoctial tempest, and it’s impossible to attempt a crossing. Cooped up in the house for several days they observe the storm, and during the course of one evening, the Probascos reveal the history of the shady Mr. Jennison, their current landlord. Mrs. Probasco explains how he once came to the house with a bunch of dubious characters who were later embroiled in the Suburban Trust Company robbery. As Philip muses whether it is prudent to question her further about his description, Mrs. Probasco tells the boys she has a photograph of him somewhere upstairs. Philip has some reservations and discreetly prompts Mrs. Probasco not to continue the discussion until Gerald is safely asleep. Later in the evening he is shown the photo, and instantly recognises the imposter, aka Belmont, who had caused them so much trouble on the steamer. Philip tells the Probasco family the whole story and explains how Gerald and he must leave the island as soon as it is conveniently possible, as a further encounter with Jennison could be disastrous! The weather clears a little, but due to his Rheumatism, Mr. Probasco is unable to take the boys over the water. A local fisherman is then engaged to ferry them to Chantico, and from there they take a stagecoach to Knoxport.

When they arrive at the hotel they notice Gerald’s father and Mr. Marcy have already checked out. Philip tries to send a telegram, but the lines are frustratingly down due to another huge storm. Mr. Banger (the manager) suggests they inform the papers about their miraculous survival, but Philip is concerned it may alert Jennison prematurely. In the end Philip agrees to the publicity and Banger tells a journalist about their incredible story. The following day there is still no news from Marcy or Gerald’s father and the boys start to worry. Indeed, Mr. Banger also begins to doubt the boys’ story. Retiring to bed Philip hears Jennison’s voice in the lobby. He extracts some information from the proprietor before leaving on his horse.

Philip and Gerald decide that if there’s no news by the end of the day, they will make their own way back to Ossokosee. While Philip is out, the despondent Gerald encounters the persistent Mr. Hilliard-Belmont-Jennison. The imposter attempts to persuade Gerald to leave with him under the ruse of being sent by his father. At that moment Philip arrives and there is a heated altercation. A group of detectives then turn up at the hotel and arrest Jennison (actually known as Billy) for forgery in Boston. The party is further interrupted by the arrival of both Mr. Saxon and Mr. Marcy. Overcome with emotion they relay their story to the dumbfounded men. It transpires that Jennison had been seeking revenge for an earlier failed investment. As they are concluding their adventures, a policeman reappears and tells Philip that Jennison wants to see him at the courthouse. Jennison gives Philip the evidence to exonerate his father from the infamous bank robbery. It appears that Sixsmith the bank janitor had been bent on revenge and causing Mr. Touchstone grief. Philip reads Sixsmith’s deathbed confession and returns to the hotel. He sits with Mr. Marcy and they talk about his interview down at the Courthouse.

In the final chapter the author ties up the loose ends. Saxon, Gerald, Philip and Marcy now live together in the Osokosee Hotel, and Mr. Saxon considers Philip his second son. Later, the two boys (financed by Saxon) go off to college together. The novel concludes with the following observation: ‘But- if one yields to the temptation to be among the prophets, and closes his eyes, there come, chiefly, pleasant thoughts of how good are friendship and love and loyal service between man and man in this rugged world of ours; and how probable it is that such things here have not their ending, since they have not their perfecting here, perfect as friendship and the service sometimes seems. Therewith the inditer of this chronicle sees Philip and Gerald walking forward, calmly and joyfully, and in an unlessened affection and clearer mutual understanding – into their endless lives’.

Language in Friel’s Play ‘Translations’

The Significance of Language in Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations’

Friel describes ‘Translations’ as a play about ‘language and only language’ (Friel in Klein, 2007, p.90). Of course, as a play it is literally a work dealing with language, but Friel also uses language as a ‘theatrical form adequate to the Irish condition, a form uniquely suited to represent the themes that concern him’ (Roche, 2006, p.3).

There is an interesting opinion expressed in Pine (1990, p. 149) that ‘a people without a language of its own is only half a nation’. Thomas Davis the founder of ‘Young Ireland’ continues by declaring ‘a nation should guard a language more than its territories. It is surer a barrier and a more important frontier than fortress or river.’

Although language is certainly one of the leading concerns, the play is ostensibly a ‘history play’ set in the early nineteenth century. It is estimated that during this period one and a half million people spoke Irish, about a quarter of the total population. In County Donegal where the play is set, there were approximately 73,000 Irish speakers, about thirty per cent of the population’ (Pine, 1990, p.148), so it was an appropriate setting to explore language.

Perhaps the first important point to consider about Translations is that the text is written completely in English. Friel intended that ‘English onstage represents two separate languages – the Irish we are asked to imagine and the English which is now the ‘natural vehicle’ for a play on an Irish stage’ (Pelletier in Roche, 2006, p.68). Because of its role in shaping and expressing personal and collective identity this is immensely ironic and hugely significant.

Cartography is also a key theme in Translations. The Royal Engineers are dispatched to anglicise the place names for the Ordnance Survey in Ireland. The ordinance survey mapping acts as ‘a powerful metaphor of the transformation of this linguistic and cultural environment. Irish loses the ability to describe what is, and becomes, like Latin and Greek, a language that is only capable of saying what it used to be’ (Pelletier in Roche, 2006, p.68).

Although maps are a static survey they affect people as well as the landscape. They undermine the history and culture of a place, and can be viewed as a form of authority, a ‘conviction,’ a type of ownership. Maps cause marginalisation; they can be used for controlling, or for dividing up the land for tax purposes.

Friel uses mapping and place names as a powerful symbol of nationalism versus colonialism. In the play we have the character of Owen who works for the Royal Engineers as a translator and go-between for the British and the Irish. Owen is practical about his employment and perhaps sees place names as artificial like language. In one scene they are discussing where the priest lives, his father Hugh responds ‘Lis na Muc’ to which Owen answers contradicting his father with the new anglicised names without any apparent sense of affection for Irish Gaelic ‘No, he doesn’t. Lis na Muc, the Fort of Pigs, has become Swinefort. And to get to Swinefort you pass through Greencastle…Fair Head…Whiteplains’ (Friel, 1981, p.51). He recalls a whole string of anglicised place names before ending with ‘and the new school isn’t at Poll na gCaorach – it’s at Sheepsrock.’ Further on in a conversation with Yolland we see Owen pragmatically arguing ‘we’re taking place-names that are riddled with confusion and we’re standardising those names’ (Friel, 1981, p52), with Yolland who is more romantic by nature responding ‘something is being eroded’.

There is textual evidence exploring both sides of this argument at the start of Act Three where Owen is explaining to his brother Manus the etymology of a place named ‘The Murren’. He recounts how the name is a corruption of St Muranus who had a monastery there in the seventh century. Owen is demonstrating that etymology applies to place names like any other word; they have histories and futures which are fluid. He concludes by arguing how ‘The Murren’ sounded unattractive and should revert to its ‘original’ name. Friel may also have intended to draw our attention to the name St Muranus, a very Latin sounding name (with an ‘us’ ending), possibly from the Roman Catholic Church, who were well-known for their colonial accomplishments throughout the world.

Another key example of mapping and place names is found in the text where Maire is discussing Yolland’s home in England. Maire is on her hands and knees and is tracing the outline of a map on the floor. Here she is describing the location of Yolland’s village, and the nearby villages and towns. Expanding her map she incorporates the county and its overall location in England. She explains ‘there’s Winfarthing…and there’s Little Walsingham – that’s his mother’s hometown…and Norwich is in a county called Norfolk…and Norfolk is in the east of England’ (Friel, 1981, p.78).This is an interesting contrast to the rigorous and aggressive remapping of Ireland being carried out by the soldiers. She comments further on the English places and how they sound to her: ‘strange sounds aren’t they? But nice sounds; like Jimmy reciting his Homer’ (Friel, 1981, p.78). Maire recalls how Yolland had drawn a map of these places on the wet sand for her. Perhaps Friel was intending to highlight here how maps are provisional, they are not permanent, and can easily be erased. Certainly the map drawn by Yolland in the sand will be washed away.

It is also relevant and useful to note how Irish Gaelic as a language is perceived in Translations. In chapter one, we find Hugh making many revealing comments at the hedge school about the language. In a discussion with Yolland (Friel, 1981, p.51) he describes Irish Gaelic as ‘a rich language … full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception – a syntax opulent with tomorrows.’ Hugh seems to be aware of the importance of language as national identity and sees the British involvement in Ireland as oppressive and detrimental to their own language and culture. He perhaps feels Irish is a language that could carry Ireland successfully forward into the future without the interference of English.

Further on in the passage Hugh refers to a new book he is working on which again highlights a view on the Irish language. It is entitled ‘The Pentaglot Preceptor or Elementary Institute of English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Irish Languages’ (Friel, 1981, p.51). This is a significant combination of languages. Friel deliberately links Irish Gaelic with Latin and Greek here as in many other points in the play to demonstrate perhaps how Irish is perceived to be among the ‘academic and intellectual dead languages,’ all of which are no longer languages of power, economics or politics.’ Hugh is clearly an educated and clever man and he seems particularly well versed in literature. However, when questioned by Yolland about William Wordsworth (who Yolland at one point lived fairly close to), Hugh replies ‘did he speak of me to you?’ When Yolland explains that he hadn’t spoken to him, only seen him out walking – in the distance, Hugh retorts ‘Wordsworth?… no. I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant… we tend to overlook your Island (Friel, 1981, p.49-50). This shows Hugh being fiercely nationalistic. Hugh was probably aware of many English writers, some he possibly admired, but he wasn’t going to raise the issue of English literature, and betray his language with an intruding and interfering Englishman.

If we now take a look at ‘translation’ as a form of communication in the play, it is interesting to note the two distinctively different scenes where Owen ‘translates’ the message of the British officers to his father and the hedge school. In the first scene we have Owen comfortable with the British and their intentions. He is also acutely aware of his father’s staunch nationalism and that of some of the students. As a result he translates the message carefully, being mindful to maintain harmony and peace between the two sides. It is worth looking at examples from the text to demonstrate this. In chapter one he introduces the soldiers by saying ‘two friends of mine are waiting outside the door’. Lancey begins his speech in a very patronising way, possibly inferring how he views the Irish people as inferior and uneducated. Owen comments how it would be best if he assumed they knew what he was talking about and that he would translate accordingly. Lancey begins pompously ‘His Majesty’s government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of the entire country’ to which Owen translates as ‘a new map is being made of the whole country’ (Friel, 1981, p.33). Lancey continues contentiously ‘so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every corner of this part of the Empire.’ Owen translates this as ‘the job is being done by soldiers because they are skilled at this work’. This is adequate if not accurate translating and Owen was able to conclude their meeting without causing further strain or obvious tension between the sides.

Later in the play Owen is no longer able to hide the brutalities that are coming ‘commencing twenty-four hours from now we will shoot all livestock in Ballybeg’ (Friel, 1981, p.80). Here the tension escalates to serious proportions with Lancey threatening eviction and the mass destruction of property. Owen can only conclude by truthfully translating ‘if Yolland hasn’t been got by then, they will ravish the whole parish’ (Friel, 1981, p.80). At this point in the play the previous metaphorical eviction becomes literal.

Having briefly touched upon Maire and Yolland earlier, it might perhaps be useful to explore how language within their relationship influences the play. What is interesting is that although both characters represent Britain and Ireland, they are in fact both sensitive to each other and far from appearing overly nationalist. They express their love for each other without understanding the words. Yolland speaks only English and Maire only Irish. A recurring symbol in their relationship is the maypole. This can be viewed as a traditional and potent symbol of England. Throughout the play both Maire and Yolland are often engaged in affectionate banter about their words being mispronounced or incorrect. In one scene we hear Yolland saying in Irish Gaelic ‘see you yesterday’ rather than ‘see you tomorrow.’ For this error he is mocked and laughed at by Maire. Yolland playfully gets his revenge by responding ‘maypoll, maypoll!’ (Friel, 1981, p.77) to further the banter. Their light-hearted misunderstandings are a stark contrast to the weightier issues of language in the play. They represent a utopian Ireland and Britain unaffected by politics, a simple pairing of people with mutual interests, but their brief scenes of friendship are played out on a larger and more complex stage of language, culture and society being oppressed, remapped and systematically eroded.

If we now look at personal names and the role they play in Translations we can see how Friel uses them to great effect. In chapter one, we are told that a christening is taking place. The hedge school are awaiting the return of their teacher Hugh when Manus his son comments ‘I know he’s at the christening; but it doesn’t take them all day to put a name on a baby, does it?’ (Friel, 1981, p.6). It is interesting how Manus remarks ‘to put a name on a baby’. To give somebody a name is to define them. We learn that Nellie Ruadh, the mother is going to name the child after its father who we learn later is Eamon Donal from Tor. It is possible that Friel included the christening of this child to represent Irish Gaelic. He was born and will be raised in Ireland, and he has been given an Irish name. And like place names personal names are social constructs that have special and even historical meaning attached to them.

We could also look more closely at Owen and his relationship with the officers Yolland and Lancey. Owen is a hybrid character who is educated, pragmatic and sees nothing wrong in working with the British, and many times throughout the play he is referred to by his English counterparts as ‘Roland’ rather than his actual name ‘Owen’. Although this isn’t an issue with Owen it causes consternation to his brother Manus, who sees it as ‘an abdication of his Irish identity and strikes him as ominous, almost a betrayal’ (Roche, 2006, p.67). A further example of Friel using personal names to show tension through language occurs with the character Sarah who has a serious speech defect. Throughout the play Manus has been coaxing Sarah to speak her full name to help build her confidence. Upon being questioned by the Lancey later in the play she reverts to silence, a scene that ‘suggests a possible symbolic reading of this character as Ireland, struck dumb through fear and the imposition of English’ (Roche, 2006, p.68).

If we are to summarise language and its significance in Translations, perhaps the first point to consider is that language is only one strand in Irish Nationalism. Be that as it may ‘Friel acknowledges the power of language in shaping our perception and understanding of the past, and the potency of such images and myths, once they have achieved cultural acceptance’ (Roche, 2006, p. 70). Language throughout the play has acted as a tool to control, to marginalise, to confuse or obscure. There have been deliberate mistranslations as in Owen’s first message from Lancey to the hedge school, and love scenes with more light hearted misunderstandings.

It is important to consider that even an ‘honest’ translation by its very nature can never be perfect, something is always lost, and there are often cultural, historical and political implications associated with languages which cannot be ignored. A further point worth bearing in mind is how ‘contemporary Irish audiences must also confront their own lack of proficiency in Irish, their historical responsibility in having accepted English as the everyday language of the Republic as well as the extent which they have succeeded in making Irish-English their own distinctive tongue’ (Roche, 2006, p. 69).


FRIEL, B. 1981. Translations. London: Faber and Faber

KLEIN, B. 2007. On the Uses of History in Recent Irish Writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press

PINE, R. 1990. Brian Friel and Ireland’s Drama. London: Routledge

ROCHE, A. 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Brian Friel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

SCHMITT-KILB, C. 2009. Scenario. Vol. III. Issue 2. The End(s) of Language in Brian Friel’s Translations and Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs and Misterman[WWW] (17 Dec, 2012).


GRANT, D. 2004. Student Guide to the Stagecraft of Brian Friel. London: Greenwich Exchange

O’DRISCOLL, R. 1971. Theatre and Nationalism in Twentieth-century Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Dear readers, I haven’t reviewed a Victorian Novel for a while, so I wanted to explain my reasons. I have just relocated to Ukraine and I’m now teaching at an international school in Kiev. As a result there are lots of challenges taking up my creative energy: a new language and alphabet to fathom, school policies and procedures to digest, and of course a super little class to get to know!

I’m living on the 15th floor of a tower block in the city. It’s certainly taking some getting used to, as I have a big problem with heights. Nevertheless, I have an excellent view to compensate. Here is my room with a view:


The school is located in a beautiful setting and I feel very blessed indeed. Here is a photo of me relaxing at lunch time:


And lastly, here are my gorgeous little monsters on their first day back at school, and indeed on my first day teaching them last week. They are wonderful, creative kids, and I’m really looking forward to spending the year getting to know them all!


Gothic Novels vs The Age of Enlightenment

The Gothic Novel Viewed as a Reaction against the Age of Enlightenment and its Prevailing Mode of Rational Thought

The Age of Enlightenment, often called the Age of Reason, was a cultural period of intellectualism prominent in eighteenth century Europe that valued scientific enquiry and reason and a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals. This was a move away from an earlier social system built on faith and belief. According to Krauze (1997) the Enlightenment principles were ‘order and progress, confidence in the possibility of controlling nature and history and a trust in commonsense and universal human nature.’

If we look at the canon of literature which developed from this empirical philosophy, and in particular the ‘novel’, we notice that the ‘English incarnation fostered a new type of lengthy narration based on the experiences of a particular individual. These were coherently arranged and embedded in a recognisable and realistic picture of society’ (O’Hara, 2010, p.172). Gothic fiction on the other hand was a mode of literature that combines both elements of horror and romance. Three common and important tropes in this genre are ‘terror’ in both the psychological and physical sense, the ‘supernatural’ including ghosts, curses and haunted houses, and ‘architecture’ which includes castles, dungeons, secret passages, cathedrals, crypts and graveyards. Looking at these three tropes we can say that in one sense Gothic fiction can be seen as a reaction against the Enlightenment as it is an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, and the unknown which invokes excitement and uncertainty. Edmund Burke wrote a seminal essay on this theme titled ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ (1759) which influenced many significant Gothic novel writers including Ann Radcliffe. He argued that the idea of the sublime ‘is used as a way of talking about the impact on us of certain dramatic or powerful manifestations of nature (mountains, storms, avalanches, etc) or supernatural (demons, angels, ghosts, etc).’

Before we move on to looking at the texts, it may also be worth considering the political climate in Europe during this period. In France there was the Revolution, and a move from absolute monarchy and aristocracy, to Enlightenment principles of citizenship and individual rights. This radical questioning of the social order spread throughout Europe and to the British population who were anxious about the social unrest and the effects of the Revolution on their stability.

In this post I will look at three Gothic novels and consider through close reading of the texts whether they can indeed be seen as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. The three texts are The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, Vathek, by William Beckford and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

I will begin by looking at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) which is generally considered to be the first proper Gothic novel. Walpole claims in the preface to his book that it was a translation of an earlier work printed in Naples in 1529 and that it was recently rediscovered in ‘an ancient Catholic family in the north of England’ (Walpole, 1968, p.39). This is significant as it adds an air of mystery to the novel. It also has a claim to trustworthiness ‘ancient Catholic family’ and a definite hint of the strange ‘printed in Naples’. At this time the Catholic Church was unpopular in Britain. It was considered a dangerous, magical and foreign religion. The Act of Settlement (1701) stated: ‘it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant Kingdom to be governed by a Papist Prince.’

The novel begins on the wedding day of Conrad and Princess Isabella. Conrad is the teenage son of Manfred, the ruler of Otranto. Here we are introduced to a powerful ‘Gothic’ mix of magic and the supernatural. A giant helmet falls from above and kills Conrad. This is interesting as it happens in light of an ancient prophecy that foretells the end of Manfred’s household and rule over Otranto ‘that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it’ (Walpole, 1968, p.51). The supernatural elements and the ancient prophecy have no logical basis and as a result can be seen as distinctively against the ideas of empirical truth that was popular during the Enlightenment.

Walpole blends the new and old style romances in this novel. The ‘old’ romance is what is considered pre-novel fiction – that which is fantastic in nature. There are magic and supernatural elements and they are unbelievable. The style of the ‘new’ romance is what the novels of the 18th century, when Walpole was writing, would generally have looked like. These novels were realistic; they depict events and people as they truly were. He introduced many elements that became standard tropes in Gothic texts, including walking portraits, strange sounds in the night, doors open independently (without human interference) and a desperate heroine fleeing from an overpowering tyrant.

Moving on to Vathek (1786), it may first be useful to explore the author’s background.  William Beckford was an extraordinary character. He was considered one of the wealthiest men in Britain ‘with his enormous wealth, he decided to make his Arabian dreams come true. He had built the loftiest domestic residence in the world, had assembled a virtual harem of boys, had his own militia to protect his ‘Gothic Cathedral’ and Fonthill estate of 6,000 acres, had written the first Oriental-Gothic horror novel in English literature, and had become the most scandalous connoisseur of hedonism in the modern world’ (Norton, 1999).  Norton claims that Vathek was a ‘thinly veiled fantasy-autobiography’ and like Beckford with his Fonthill Abbey ‘the caliph is satiated with sensual pleasures and builds a tower so he can penetrate the forbidden secrets of heaven itself’.

During the eighteenth century with the rise of the Industrial Revolution there was a great change to the social and economic norms. This resulted in the middle classes being able to climb the social ladder. Travel became easier and trading in ‘exotic’ goods became a major source of industry. To many in Europe and Great Britain the East symbolised mystery, an unchartered place that was untamed and dangerous. During this period there was a fascination with all things oriental and a fear of the unknown, and this became a popular theme in art and literature. Likewise, Vathek attempts to confront these fears and explores the exotic side of oriental life.

‘Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of Abassides’ (Beckford, 1968, p.151) lives a sumptuous and scandalous lifestyle not unlike Beckford. He has built five palaces, each of which is dedicated to the fulfilment of the five different senses. This sensory experience is an interesting point as it runs contrary to Enlightenment principles of logic and reason. Vathek lives an unashamedly rich and hedonistic lifestyle.

The novel is also full of supernatural elements and focuses on superstition and religion rather than scientific validation. Vathek has abandoned his religion Islam in pursuit of infinite knowledge and power. There is also the important trope of prophecy in the novel. We are told that the stars have communicated to Vathek relating ‘the most marvellous adventures, which were to be accomplished by an extraordinary personage, from a country unknown’ (Beckford, 1968, p. 154). In opposition to this there are supernatural forces working to stop Vathek and this creates suspense for the reader, invoking a sense of terror and uncertainty. These supernatural forces and the overriding prophecy are further examples of a rebellion against Enlightenment ideas of logical and scientific thought.

If we now turn out attention to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) it is useful to introduce the context in which this novel was written. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband went to visit Lord Byron in Switzerland, renting houses in close proximity near Lake Geneva. 1816 was known as ‘the year with no summer’ and one rainy evening sitting around the fire reading ghost stories, Lord Byron challenged the company to write their own ghost stories. In a waking dream, Mary conceived the inspiration for Frankenstein, the tale of a scientist who brings to life a human-like creature with far reaching consequences. Although Frankenstein doesn’t have all the tropes of a Gothic novel, there are perhaps enough elements to classify it as one. Some people view the novel as an early example of science fiction, but whatever Shelley’s intentions the novel is significant for its portrayal of landscapes and ‘dream-like’ qualities. In light of Shelley’s revelation that Frankenstein was conceived in a waking dream, it is interesting in Chapter 23 to read in the narrative

The moon had reached her summit in the heavens and was beginning to descend; the clouds swept across it swifter that the flight of the vultures and dimmed her rays, while the lake reflected the scene of the busy heavens, rendered still busier by the restless waves that were beginning to rise. Suddenly a heavy storm descended (Shelley, 1968, p.466)

The novel is full of examples of natural landscapes that inspire awe in the reader and these are important examples of the sublime ‘that which is of imposing magnitude and greatness’ and ‘that which invokes intense and immensely powerful emotions.’  Burke (2008) say in Part II, Section I of his essay ‘the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror’.

There are many mountainous scenes in Frankenstein, and these can be viewed as ‘evoking’ the sublime in the reader as opposed to ‘instructing’ them with knowledge.’ One is to enjoy the awe and majesty of the scenery. A good example can be found at the start of chapter 2:  ‘she busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home—the sublime shapes of the mountains the changes of the seasons, tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of our Alpine summers—she found ample scope for admiration and delight (Shelley, 1968, p.295).

This fascination and love for nature was a big part of Romanticism. Writers, artists, and composers during the Romantic period valued intuition over learning and imagination over doctrine. They valued feelings and sensation over scientific facts. In order to evoke these feelings and sensations the Romantics often drew their inspiration from the arts and nature. What is interesting about Frankenstein is the terror felt by the protagonist after his creation of the monster. We are taken on a journey both internally, through Victor Frankenstein’s mind, as well as his physically exhausting journey to locate and destroy his creation. The quick pace, psychological intensity and the suspense in the narrative invokes in the reader the ‘thrill of fearfulness and the joy of extreme emotion.’ These feelings would not be found in novels from the Enlightenment which concentrated on rationalism and reason.

We are given nothing definite in the process of how he created the ‘monster’ only that he ‘collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame’ (Shelley, 1968, p.315). Through a series of scientific experiments using galvanism he was able to create life itself. This is a feat both incredible and fantastic and it would almost certainly have echoed contemporary society’s questions about human limitations and the existence of a God. Electricity was commonly believed to be the source of life and in an age of scientific exploration this novel was a terrifying reminder of possible human achievement, the abuse of power and the danger of creating something out of our understanding that spirals out of all control. In the ‘author’s introduction to the standard edition’ Shelley states this exact point ‘fright must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’

In conclusion, it may be fair to say that the popularity of the Gothic novel was due to a number of factors. As we have seen, they often played on the very real fears of their contemporary readers. With the echo of the French Revolution resonating around Europe and Britain, and the Industrial Revolution gaining momentum there was much worry and uncertainty. By playing on a person’s fears and insecurities, the reader experiences in the novels, a sensation of terror and extreme emotion that would have been effective. In The Castle of Otranto it could have been the genuine belief that the book came from an earlier source. The curse of the ancient prophecy, the intense chase through subterraneous passages, and the themes of murders and incest. From Vathek we find the supernatural elements, the hedonistic lifestyle of the Caliph, the murder of the beautiful boys, and his pursuit of limitless knowledge. All these ideas would have captivated their readers. And in Frankenstein perhaps it was a combination of the breathtaking landscapes, the creation of the monster, and the intense chases that brought feelings of terror and feelings of suspense to those who read them. All these themes, the irrational over the rational, the use of location, and the natural versus the supernatural are all examples of a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. The fear of the unknown and the joys of intense emotion are some of the reasons these books were popular and have remained popular to this day.


BURKE, E. & BOULTON, J.T. 2008. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge

KRAUZE, A. & SPENCER, L. 1997. Introducing the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd, p.172

NORTON, R. 1999. William Beckford: The Fool of Fonthill [www] (16th February, 2012)

O’HARA, K. 2010. The Enlightenment. Oxford: One World Publications, p.172

WALPOLE, H., BECKFORD, W., & SHELLEY, M. 1968. Three Gothic Novels. London: Penguin Classics


AUSTEN, J. 1994. Northanger Abbey. London: Penguin Popular Classics

BALDICK, C. 2009. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

HABERMAS, J. 1981. Modernity versus Postmodernity. New Critique, 22 (Winter 1981)

PUNTER, D. 2001. A Companion to the Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell

Books that really distressed me…

If, like me, you’re rather sensitive and have an overactive imagination then I wouldn’t recommend the following books for light bedtime reading. I was so distressed after reading them, that after each case, I frantically dug out my collection of dusty Victorian novels, and held a special ‘Anthony Trollope’ readathon just to bring my anxiety levels down. This of course is not meant as a criticism of the books, or indeed of their respective literary merits – it’s just a record of three books that distressed me to no end.

First up is…

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965), by Yukio Mishima

This novel follows the life of the teenager, Noboru, who hangs out a bunch of troubled thirteen year old boys. They form a volatile gang and have many debates about nihilistic philosophy. As they grow in confidence they also start rejecting conventional morality. Knowing they can’t be held criminally responsible (apparently under Japanese law you have to be fourteen) they push the boundaries and decide to ritually mutilate a live kitten. They eventually smash his brains out on the ceiling! If this wasn’t distressing enough, they also hatch a plan to lure a sailor called Ryuji to their den ‘on the pretense of wanting to hear some of his sea stories’. Blissfully unaware, his tea is drugged, and as has passes out, they pulverise him too.  This novel distressed me on so many levels.

Next we have …

Death in Venice (1912), by Thomas Mann

I’m a primary school teacher… need I elaborate why this book deeply troubled me? I understand it was ‘ruinous inward passion’, but it distressed me nevertheless.

And last, but definitely not least…

The Judge’s House (1891), from Dracula’s Guest, by Bram Stoker

This is a creepy tale of a skeptical maths student who moves into a house said to be haunted by a deranged judge who handed out the death sentence with relish. While studying late at night, Malcolm, is frequently disturbed by a giant rat with ‘evil, menacing’ eyes that sits in a high-backed oak chair. One night he notices a rope hanging from the great alarm bell on the roof, and sees the giant rat climbing down. There is an old portrait of the aforementioned judge near the rope, and when he looks closely at his face, he notices the judge’s evil eyes are the same as the giant rats!

When he turns around it is not the rat sitting in the high-backed chair, but the judge in his scarlet robes [reading this my blood literally went cold, and I had goose pimples all over my arms. I did not for one moment suspect the judge to be the rat!]. With a cruel smile on his face the judge puts his black cap on, and ties a noose with the end of the rope. Malcolm passes out in fright and the noose is placed over his neck. The judge then kicks away the chair, and poor Malcolm is left swinging. This of course makes the bell toll, and when the villagers come to enquire, they find the lifeless Malcolm, and on the portrait … a malignant smile on the judge’s face!