The Gothic

Reactions against rationality

As well as the development of Romanticism, the reaction to rationality also found expression in sentimental and Gothic literature. 


‘Sentimentalism' developed as a reaction to rationalism in philosophy and to Calvinism in religion. Whereas the Enlightenment encouraged distrust of feelings, and Calvinism taught that the human heart was intrinsically evil, Sentimentalism emphasised the central importance of feelings and the essential goodness of the human heart.
A Sentimental approach can be found in novels like Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson. It is also highlighted in the debate between reason and sentiment in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

Gothic literature

Of far greater influence on Keats was the genre of the Gothic novel. The term Gothic denoted a time that was barbaric, disordered, irregular – before the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. In reaction to an emphasis on reason, Gothic texts represent a world that is not totally controlled by, and accessible to, human rationality. It is aware of deeper psychological and sexual impulses beyond the realm of reason. (See Aspects of literature > Aspects of the gothic.)
Castle of Otranto frontispieceThe widespread taste of the Gothic grew from the mid-eighteenth century onwards and was a reaction against the symmetries of neo-classical form and design. Although it began as a trend in architecture, it soon became associated with literature, in particular the novel, and it was the publication in 1764 of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, set in eleventh century Spain, that initiated a craze for narratives full of dark deeds and supernatural events set in sinister castles. 
Otranto’s aristocratic villain Manfred, the persecuted heroine Isabella and its various dungeons, hidden doors and spooky tunnels may seem like clichés for a modern reader, but they seemed very new and exciting to contemporary readers who demanded more stories like this. Soon other writers such as Clara Reeve, William Beckford, Matthew Lewis, Anne Radcliffe, William Godwin, Charles Maturin and Mary Shelley were producing novels in the same genre. 

The Gothic and Keats

Elements of the Gothic were not confined to the novel. It encompassed drama and poetry as well. Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes, with its setting on a freezing winter evening in a medieval mansion in the distant past, has many Gothic elements, as do:
  • Isabella: or The Pot of Basil
  • Lamia
  • Endymion
  • La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
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