Tag Archives: Romanticism

John Keats: On the heather to lie together, with both our hearts a-beating!

26 May

A beautiful poem by John Keats (1795-1821), English poet of Romanticism.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Shepherdess, ca. 1750-52

Where be ye going, you Devon maid?

WHERE be ye going, you Devon maid?

And what have ye there i’ the basket?

Ye tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy,

Will ye give me some cream if I ask it?

 

I love your meads, and I love your flowers,

And I love your junkets mainly,

But ‘hind the door, I love kissing more,

O look not so disdainly!

 

I love your hills, and I love your dales,

And I love your flocks a-bleating;

But O, on the heather to lie together,

With both our hearts a-beating!

 

I’ll put your basket all safe in a nook,

Your shawl I’ll hang up on this willow,

And we will sigh in the daisy’s eye,

And kiss on a grass-green pillow.

Gustave Courbet and the Romantics: Chateau de Chillon

18 May

The rain had been falling incessantly these past few days and it truly makes me feel as if I were a heroine in a Gothic novel, roaming the dark corridors of some castle dressed in a long Regency white gown, or exploring the dusty old chambers with a candle in my hand, admiring the old portraits and hearing echoes of music reverberate in the spiderwebs.

Gustave Courbet, Chateau de Chillon, 1873

I thought of a painting which befitted the mood of this strange and gloomy spring weather and the Gothic-novel mood that I am in right now: Chateau de Chillon by Gustave Courbet. To paint a castle seems like an oddly romantical choice of motif for a Realist painter, and yet Courbet painted many different versions of this scene in the 1870s. That was during his time spend in Switzerland on a self-imposed exile to avoid bankruptcy, near the end of his life; he died on the last day of 1877. Courbet’s Realism wasn’t only about portraying reality exactly as it was, it was more about being directly inspired by the world around him, by the things he saw with his own eyes and not things conjured by his imagination. All sorts of romantic scenarios and fantasies are born in my mind as I gaze at this castle, but to Courbet it was simply a delightful scene that he saw and decided to capture on canvas. In this case, it is on the viewer to add a dreamy context to the scene, while the painter stayed rather objective.

Chateau de Chillon is a Medieval island-castle situated on the lake Geneva in Switzerland. Its rich history and sublime beauty made it a popular tourist destination in the nineteenth century as well as today. Aesthetically it is very happily situated: just imagine gliding down the lake’s smooth surface and seeing this sight: an old castle with many towers and dungeons, where every stone tells a story and literally so: (upon visiting the castle, Lord Byron carved his name on one of the pillars in the dungeon, and he did the same thing in Greece, talking about arrogance), situated on the shore of the glistening lake, with the Alps in the background…

My favourite Courbet’s rendition of the castle is the one above, perhaps because it was the first one I have seen, but also because out of all the versions it looks the least picturesque and it is the most expressive and vivid; the brushstrokes seem less fine and everything is more pronounced, more wild; the water of the lake is hitting the shore in maddening waves, the brown stone on the shore looks tangible and rough, the thin bare trees are carried away by the wild wind, Alps in the background have a serious stoic face of someone old and righteous, the dark troubled clouds are a dazzling play of white and grey, a storm is coming and the rains will once again wash the old stones of Chateau de Chillon which have seen and heard things unimaginable.

Gustave Courbet, The Château de Chillon, 1874

Gustave Courbet, The Château de Chillon, c. 187477

Now, as I am taking more time to gaze at other versions, I am also loving the one right one, from 1874-77, because of its subtle lyrical beauty. The castle seems very accurately portrayed here and looks like something out of a romantic fairy-tale and less like a place with a dark history, and also, the lake looks ethereal and you can even see the reflection of the castle in the water. This version is musical and gentle, calm and idyllic. Still, Courbet wasn’t the first artist who discovered the castle’s charms; more than half a century before Courbet, the Romantics travelled the continent and explored interesting places. Castles, ruins overgrown with ivy and all sorts of abandoned places captures the imagination of the Romantics such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary. The three visited the castle in Visiting the castle, especially its dungeons inspired Lord Byron to write “The Prisoner of Chillon”, first published in 1816, and observations of the castle appear in the travel narrative called History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni” written by Percy and Mary Shelley and published in 1817. Here are some fascinating passages from Mary’s letters:

On my return, after breakfast, we sailed for Clarens, determining first to see the three mouths of the Rhone, and then the castle of Chillon; the day was fine, and the water calm. We passed from the blue waters of the lake over the stream of the Rhone, which is rapid even at a great distance from its confluence with the lake; the turbid waters mixed with those of the lake, but mixed with them unwillingly. (…)

Map of two trips described in “History of a Six Weeks’ Tour”, from 1814 and 1816

Mary continues with descriptions of darker aspects of the castle:

We passed on to the Castle of Chillon, and visited its dungeons and towers. These prisons are excavated below the lake; the principal dungeon is supported by seven columns, whose branching capitals support the roof. Close to the very walls, the lake is 800 feet deep; iron rings are fastened to these columns, and on them were engraven a multitude of names, partly those of visitors, and partly doubtless of the prisoners, of whom now no memory remains, and who thus beguiled a solitude which they have long ceased to feel. One date was as ancient as 1 670. At the commencement of the Reformation, and indeed long after that period, this dungeon was the receptacle of those who shook, or who denied the systeA of idolatry, from the effects of which mankind is even now slowly emerging.

Close to this long and lofty dungeon was a narrow cell, and beyond it one larger and far more lofty and dark, supported upon two unornamented arches. Across one of these arches was a beam, now black and rotten, on which prisoners were hung in secret. I never saw a monument more terrible of that cold and inhuman tyranny, which it has been the delight of man to exercise over man. It was indeed one of those many tremendous fulfilments which render the “pernicies humani generis” of the great Tacitus, so solemn and irrefragable a prophecy. The gendarme, who conducted us over this castle, told us that there was an opening to the lake, by means of a secret spring, connected with which the whole dungeon might be filled with water before the prisoners could possibly escape!

William John Montaigne – The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth

18 Nov

“She sits in her red tower – and dreams.”

(Virginia Woolf, from a letter to Ethel Smyth written c. January 1935)

William John Montaigne (1820-1902), The Imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1866

A young angelic faced maiden is standing by the window in a small chamber in the Tower of London. Our eyes are instantly captivated by her gorgeous dress; so sumptuous and so vibrantly red with golden detailing on the bodice, puffed ‘Juliet’ sleeves, delicate white ruffles around her slender neck, and a shining silk petticoat which falls beautifully and creases majestically, bringing to mind the splendour of the dresses painted by Van Dyck in his portraits of the seventeenth century court ladies. Apart from the beautiful vibrant gown, our eyes are captivated by her face which reveals an inner turmoil. So pale and delicate, almost doll-like with sad pink-lidded eyes and full pouting mouth. Wistfulness of her gaze reveals her thoughts and worries. So tall, thin, elegant, and regal she seems to is in that stuffy old chamber. She seemed to have been writing something on the wooden wall, words unbeknownst to us, but something made her stop and her hand gesture, resting on her forehead, signifies this overwhelming worry. This fiery red-haired girl is the twenty year old Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, a younger Protestant sister was a thorn in the eye to the Catholic Mary, daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, and when Wyatt’s rebellion broke out early in 1554, Mary wasted not a second in trying to accuse Elizabeth of conspiracy. Elizabeth was questioned at court about her involvement with the rebellion and despite having protested her innocence, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two months. All sorts of thoughts must have been haunting her mind when she was imprisoned on the 18th March 1554. Her future was uncertain, what awaited her was a possible death, and, moreover, the Tower of London was the same place where her mother, Anne Boleyn, had spent her last days before being accused of witchcraft and adultery and then executed. Was her mother’s spirit there to comfort her, in blue velvety night when the full moon shone through the tall windows?

In this painting, young and pretty historical figure is facing the same inner drama, fear and uncertainty that some other heroines have faced; Joan of Arc and Lady Jane Grey to name a few. Romanticism loved romanticising martyrs and beautiful brave heroines facing tragedies, and Victorian painting brought this genre on an entirely new level. William John Montaigne was a Victorian era painter and such a scene is perfectly suited to Victorian tastes, but the wonderful execution and striking colours give it a lasting value, it’s not to be forgotten easily. Still, Montaigne’s painting style here has a lot in common with Pre-Raphaelites too, more than the sentimental mainstream Victorian art. The composition with the girl standing by the window, looking worries and dressed in a vibrant dress, brings to mind John Everett Millais’ “Marianna”. More similarities are found in the manner in which Montaigne’s painting was painted, using intense colours and portraying intense genuine feeling, and being attentive to detailing.

For anyone interested in the political situation behind Elizabeth’s imprisonment and even her letter, you can read an interesting article here.

Paolo and Francesca: The Passion of Lovers is for Death

15 Nov

“The passion of lovers is for death said she
Licked her lips
And turned to feather”

(Bauhaus, The Passion of Lovers)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, 1819

Kisses

It is easy to envelop the distant, mythical past in many veils of dreams and poetry. Romantics loved romanticising and the subject of doomed thirteen century lovers which charmingly unites the themes of love and death, was a perfect fuel for the artists’ fantasies from Ingres all up to now probably. Even the embraced couple, carved in splendid white marble, in Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” shows Paolo and Francesco, though the title of the work wouldn’t reveal it instantly. Different artists chose to portray different moment in Paolo and Francesca’s doomed love life; some portrayed them as innocent love bird sharing a coy kiss or two, others painted them in the moment of their deaths, and some focused on their buzzing afterlife in Inferno.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered a Classicist and still elements of Romanticism, both stylistically and thematically, often pop up in his work; from the vibrant exoticism of his harem ladies and dark archaic touch of the Northern art in some of his portraits, to his portrayal of Medieval lovers caught in their forbidden earthly love. In his painting from 1819, he presented the two lovers enjoying each others company in a small elongated chamber the walls of which are covered in wood panels which makes the room resemble a box, perhaps suggesting the oppressive environment of their household. Francesca is painted in archaic robes and resembles a character from a painting of Northern Renaissance. Paolo, in his tights and a sword, is kissing her cheek as she turns her oval face away from him. As the old saying goes: “Two is a company, three is none”; the seeming peace of their love is interrupted by a figure in the background. It’s Giovanni, slowly drawing the curtain away only to see a shocking sight. The scene all together resembles a theatre scene and the narrative aspect is very strong, Ingres is leading us thought the story with little details and gestures. The very moment Giovanni is about to raise his sword, Francesca’s book is caught in its fall to the ground.

William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini, 1837

Francesca was born in 1255 in Ravenna, her father was the lord of Ravenna; an Italian town on the Adriatic coast with a strong Byzantine influence, and the last place to be the centre of Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Around the age of twenty she married Giovanni Malatesta, the wealthy yet crippled lord of Rimini, sometimes also known as “Gianciotto” or “Giovanni the Lame”. Similarly to the story of Tristan and Isolde, Francesca wasn’t in love with Giovanni, it was just an arranged marriage after all, but her eyes soon took notice of Giovanni dashing younger brother Paolo. Gaze turned into a conversation, and words into kisses and caresses… Paolo was also married, and yet the two managed to keep their love a secret for ten years. William Dyce portrayed the couple as sitting on a balcony; Francesca is reading a book while Paolo is rushing to kiss her. Behind them is a serene verdant landscape, the moon shines in the right corner, and next to Francesca’s feet is an instrument, I am guessing, a lute which might add a sensuous touch to the scene. The scene is all together a bit too sentimental. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, hailing from Italy himself and an ardent admirer of Dante’s poetry and his life, envisaged the scene differently. In his watercolour, he portrays the couple as sitting in a chamber; pink roses are blooming, fresh air is coming in through the window, and, distracted from whatever they were reading, the couple share a passionate kiss. The book, half on his lap and half on hers, is about to fall down on the thorns of some more pink roses.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1867, watercolour

Death

The secret kisses turned out to be not so secret after all, for one day, around 1285, Giovanni caught them off guard, in Francesca’s bedroom. His blood fueled from rage and jealousy, and without much thinking Giovanni yielded the sword and deprived them both of life. Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t so dramatic in reality. What really happened was that Giovanni had heard some rumours about his wife cheating on him, and he rushed to her chamber. Francesca let him in because she was certain that Paolo had managed to escape through the window, but what she didn’t know was the he got stuck. Giovanni then tried to kill his brother, but Francesca tried to defend him, and was killed instead. Giovanni then proceeded to kill Paolo as well. Later they were buried in a single tomb; how devastatingly romantic is that!?

Alexandre Cabanel, The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870

Alexandre Cabanel was a French Academic painter and the way he envisaged the scene of Paolo and Francesca’s death is very theatrical. They are both dressed in splendid clothes, their pale faces are full of pathos, their gestures tell a story of their agony. Francesca is lying on something which looks more like a sarcophagus than a bed, and the ornamental marble floor further emphases the mood of coldness and death. Meanwhile, Giovanni is checking behind the curtain one more time to be sure they are indeed dead. Previati portrayed the scene of their death in a very dramatic way, using an elongated canvas and focusing on the figures themselves and not so much on the interior. Our eyes are focused on the bodies and the agony and pain of their sudden death. The painting is striking; there is still a sword in Paolo’s back, and his arm is limp, and Francesca’s hand is on her chest while her mouth are still slightly open as if she’s still catching her breath.

Gaetano Previati, Paolo e Francesca, ca. 1887

Wind of Passion

Death is no the end, as Nick Cave says in one of his songs. Almost a thousand years had passed from their deaths, but Paolo and Francesca are still embraced and carried away by the wind of passion. It is almost hard to imagine that before their eternity of damnation they were of mortal flesh just as we are now. Dante shows both disapproval of their life choices and a sympathy when he finally meets them in Inferno. I am thinking: wow, what a way to spend eternity! Being carried by the wind, safe in the arms of the one you love. Sounds like heaven, not hell.

George Frederic Watts, Paolo et Francesca, 1872-75

When Dante met Paolo and Francesca in Hell, this is what he said:

And I began: “Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?”

And Francesca responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

William Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

George Stubbs – A Horse Frightened By A Lion

29 Oct

George Stubbs, A Horse Frightened By A Lion, 1770

Clearly separating the art of Classicism and that of Romanticism is hard, but tracing the early occurrences of romantic tendencies in visual arts is, on the other hand, an easier pursuit. I always saw Henri Fusseli’s painting “The Nightmare” from 1781 as one of the earliest examples of Romanticism in the visual arts because both the mood and the theme show the artist’s exploration of darker topics; dreams and the irrational, something which would scarcely be interesting to painters from previous generations and even to his contemporaries. Still, there is another eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs, who imbued two of his works with a Romantic taste for wild, untamed nature and strong emotions and thereby exhibited what were to become the tendencies of Romanticism. The romantic pathos in his painting “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” is hard to ignore.

Stubbs was an Academic painter who specialised in animal painting, horses in particular, and even published a work called “Anatomy of the Horse” (1766) which is a result of his meticulous study of the anatomy of that fine elegant animal and shows his natural precision and dedication to study from nature directly, not from copies of others. He was also one of the first painters to paint animals that were exotic and therefore fascinating to the English audience and Europe in general, such as zebras and kangaroos. Stubb’s two paintings; “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” and “A Lion Attacking a Horse”, from 1770, were imagined as a pendant and show a distinctly romantic mood which was a great shift stylistically and arises directly from Edmund Burke’s theoretical work “On the Sublime and Beautiful”, first published in 1756. Criticism towards Burke tend to claim that he merely observed the direction of the art towards a new style, but Stubb’s example shows us how an artist was inspired by theory.

George Stubbs, A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770

Here is an interesting fragment from the third part of Burke’s work, from the essay “Proportion not the cause of beauty in animals”: “Turn next to beasts; examine the head of a beautiful horse; find what proportion that bears to his body, and to his limbs, and what relation these have to each other; and when you have settled these proportions as a standard of beauty, then take a dog or cat, or any other animal, and examine how far the same proportions between their heads and their necks, between those and the body, and so on, are found to hold; I think we may safely say, that they differ in every species, yet that there are individuals, found in a great many species so differing, that have a very striking beauty.” So, Burke even mentions a horse in particular, an animal which had already been of great interest to Stubbs, and connects its proportion-less appearance with the aesthetic of sublime.

I already wrote a detailed post about the opposing aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime, based on Immanuel Kant’s work, here. In short, the Sublime is that which inspires awe, fear and strong emotions. For example: thunderstorms, a very tall and strong oak, wild waves, volcano eruption, strong wind, ruin of a castle perched on top of the hill, a big mountain or a steep cliff. Here is what Burke said: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” (Of the Sublime)

In “A Horse Frightened by a Lion”, our eye is captivated by the glistening whiteness of the poor frightened horse in the dark forest where all sorts of ominous things might occur. How strongly his whole body reacts to the grim encounter with the lion; his wide-opened eye shows how startled he is, his muscles are emphasised and animated, his mouth open in despair, his fine light hair is blown away by the wind of fear. Lion’s patient face emerges from the darkness. Stubbs purposefully chose to portray a frightening sight from nature to stir the viewer’s feelings and awaken his empathy. In the second scene, “A Lion Attacking a Horse“, the poor horse is already attacked by the cruel lion in the mute darkness of the landscape full of rocks and shrubbery. The horse’s mouth, neck and feet are all contorted from the pain and fear. The figure of the lion is disappearing into the darkness and blending in with the wild nature, both are overpowering and sinister for the white fragile horse. On the left part of the painting, dark clouds are gathering, ready to wash the blood that is to flow with fresh rain drops.

George Stubbs, A lion attacking a horse, 1765

Stubbs painted an entire series on lions and horses, starting from the early 1760s, I’ve put two examples bellow, but they have certainly changed as decades passed. His focus shifted from the anatomy of the horse and the act of attack itself to the sublime mood and the horse’s reaction. The landscape grew darker and bigger, the horse is left nothing but a small white figure in the foreground while nature domineers. Compositions are similar, and the figure of the lion attacking the horse are nearly identical in two different versions from 1765 and 1770, but the mood differs greatly. The landscape is light and classical in the earlier paintings, whereas the later ones show the kind of melancholy beauty that later romantic landscapes are praised for. This series of paintings is a result of three things: Stubbs’s lifelong fascination with horses and study of anatomy, influence of Burke’s idea of the Sublime, and also Stubb’s visit to Rome in 1754 where he must have seen and memorised the Capitoline sculpture which shows a lion attacking a horse.

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by a Lion, exhibited in 1763

Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at a painting which I loved recently; “The Death of Chatterton” painted in 1856 by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. The painting’s romantic, melancholy mood and vibrant colours are perfect to celebrate the first day of autumn; the most romantical of all the seasons.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain version

Pale rays of the morning sun are coming in through the window of this shabby little garret. A young man is lying on the bed, but he isn’t in the world of dreams, in the usual slumber we mortals are well acquainted with. His pale grayish skin and hand hanging limply and touching the floor tell us that his soul is now wandering the dark avenues of the world of the death; no bird song, no caress or soft whisper of a loved one’s voice shall ever awaken those eyes to see and mouth to speak again. Through the window stretches a view of London; a city of possibilities, a city of despair, a city which brought nothing but disappointment and misery to this poor red-haired sleeping angel. Not many possessions he had in his poorly furnished attic room; a box lies next to his bed full of papers, some torn to pieces and some survived with words full of secrets. A chair with a red coat on it. Dark dirty wall full of cracks and a round little table. One can imagine the eerie silence hanging in that room like a cloud.

The dead young man here is the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton who died in London in 1770 at the age of seventeen by poisoning himself with arsenic in the fit of despair. Although poor, he was very clever and not only ambitious, but, unfortunately for him, quite romantic too; when his idealism was shattered, the pink clouds of his dreams tainted by reality’s grey long-fingered nails, he saw death as the only escape. He is now considered an early romantic, and with his interest in Medieval literature and his short life laced with mysteries, Chatterton was admired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. And yet, no one glamourised his life with such intensity as Wallis here in this painting. Victorian group of painters, the Pre-Raphaelites were visual continuators of the idealism and dreaminess of the Romantic poetry; not in the form of beautiful and sensuous language but in vibrant colours and intricate detailing. Not only the subject alone, that of a Romantic martyr for art, but the method and style of the painting with its emphasis on details and usage of vibrant colours connect Wallis to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gorgeous and vivid these colours are, and how beautiful his corpse looks dressed in those lapis lazuli coloured trousers and masses of auburn hair. How serene he looks after a life of suffering in this cruel world. His shirt is unbuttoned, one shoe fell on the floor, and there is a bottle, presumably of arsenic that rolled out of his hand. In the Birmingham version of the painting, his trousers appear more violet in colour, which makes a tremendous difference 😉 .

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Birmingham version

The dazzling chiaroscuro, a method which Wallis loved, with the lightness falling on the body while the rest of the garret is in half-darkness only intensifies the emotional dimension of the painting. It is impossible not to feel gentleness, empathy, and also a sense of sacredness. The model for Chatterton was George Meredith, a poet and a novelist whose wife had an affair with Wallis just two years after this was painted, ouch, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. The Christ-like pose of the cadaver has since brought comparisons to religious art, such as Michelangelo’s “Pietà”. For Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, the artist was a secularised Christ-like figure, a dreamer, an idealist and a lover of beauty tortured by the unkind world. Therefore, Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton holds a deeper significance and meaning than a usual historical painting would; it isn’t just a portrait of a poet who had died the century before, it is an icon for all who believe in the religion of Art and Beauty.

There is an interesting anecdote from Chatterton’s life which occurred three days before he died; he was walking with his friend along the St Pancras Churchyard (the same one where Percy Shelley had nocturnal love meetings with Mary), lost in his thoughts the young poet fell into an open grave. His friend joked about it by saying he’d be delighted to help resurrect a genius from the grave, to which Chatterton replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.” Just three days later, on 24th August 1770, he was dead.

This painting with the theme of suicide reminded me of the Manic Street Preachers’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
….
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…

Mary Shelley’s Mathilda: A Maiden in Love with Death

28 Aug

Ahh, gothic maidens, incest and death; three things I love in a novel! I am in such a Gothic mood these days and how convenient that Mary Shelley will be celebrating her birthday soon; this Thursday, 30th August, marks the 221st anniversary of her birth. Did you not get the invitation to her graveyard-party in your mailbox? I know I did. Percy wrote it in his gorgeous handwriting. So sweet of him.

Walking dress, Ackermann’s Repository, July 1818; a perfect attire for a Gothic heroine

Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel written in first person is a dark little masterpiece. The story starts with the heroine Mathilda who is in her early twenties lying in bed and awaiting death. What we are reading is a long letter to her friend Woodville in which she reveals to him, and to us, the sad course of her life and dark secrets that she had kept concealed while she was alive: “You have often asked me the cause of my solitary life; my tears; and above all of my impenetrable and unkind silence. In life I dared not; in death I unveil the mystery.” We find out that her mother and father were madly in love with each other, and that her mother Diana died shortly after Mathilda was born. Her father, heartbroken and mad with sadness, set off to travel to distant lands in a self-imposed exile.

Mathilda is brought up by her father’s older sister. Deprived of love and affections, she grows into a dreamy forest-maiden whose friends are birds and flowers, and whose pursuits are long walks over the moors and indulging in reverie. I enjoyed the tempo of her storytelling; little by little she is introducing us to her life and explaining her character and emotions with brilliant vibrancy of expression and elaborate language. Growing up, Mathilda idealises her father and indulges in frequent and long reveries of how her ideal life would be. One day when she is sixteen she receives a letter from her father telling her that he is returning. She is ecstatic beyond belief, and on their first meeting their get along very well and their souls connect. Months of bliss are in front of them.

Photo by Laura Makabresku, “She is dead but lately started to blossom”

“In truth I am in love with death; no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire than I in fancying my limbs already enwrapt in their shroud: is it not my marriage dress?”

Glencoe, Scotland, photo found here.

The plot is simple and has all the typical components of Gothic literature; an innocent maiden, loneliness and isolated setting of the Scottish castle, darkness looming over the heroine’s life… Still, the ending is very untypical of a Gothic novel of Romanticism; death beats love in this story and there is no knight to save the damsel from death’s sweet embrace. I see it as a rather sophisticated and lyrical exploration of a very dark topic, and one which could easily be tasteless. Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin didn’t enjoy the manuscript which Mary had sent him from Rome, and the novella wasn’t published until 1959.

I particularly loved the way Mary Shelley explored the themes of yearning for love, and self-imposed life in isolation; both are very dear to my heart. Mathilda’s childhood is lonely and instead of receiving love she is compelled to give it: “By degrees I became reconciled to solitude but no one supplied her place in my affections. I lived in a desolate country where there were none to praise and very few to love.“ That doesn’t turn her into a cold distant individual, quite the contrary, she gives love freely to all things of nature around her, and caries a hope in her heart that one day she would be given an opportunity to bestow these affections on her father. Apart from a short-lasting joy when her father returns, Mathilda spends nearly her entire life in isolation, but Shelley makes a distinction here; isolation doesn’t mean loneliness.

I can easily say that “Mathilda” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, a true hidden gem and the beauty lies in many reasons; throughout exploration of complex themes, beautiful elaborate language, the character of Mathilda and the fact that it’s written in the first person which gives it an extra emotional depth and intimacy.

And now plenty of beautiful quotes:

“I know that I am about to die and I feel happy–joyous.”

“I cannot say with what passion I loved every thing even the inanimate objects that surrounded me. I believe that I bore an individual attachment to every tree in our park; every animal that inhabited it knew me and I loved them. Their occasional deaths filled my infant heart with anguish.”

I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.”

“I had acquired in my harp a companion in rainy days; a sweet soother of my feelings when any untoward accident ruffled them: I often addressed it as my only friend; I could pour forth to it my hopes and loves, and I fancied that its sweet accents answered me.“

“I was a solitary being, and from my infant years, ever since my dear nurse left me, I had been a dreamer. (…) Then I wandered from the fancies of others and formed affections and intimacies with the aerial creations of my own brain–but still clinging to reality I gave a name to these conceptions and nursed them in the hope of realization. I clung to the memory of my parents; my mother I should never see, she was dead: but the idea of [my] unhappy, wandering father was the idol of my imagination. I bestowed on him all my affections; there was a miniature of him that I gazed on continually; I copied his last letter and read it again and again.“

Scotland Fog, photos by Skyler Brown

“As I came, dressed in white, covered only by my tartan rachan, my hair streaming on my shoulders, and shooting across with greater speed that it could be supposed I could give to my boat, my father has often told me that I looked more like a spirit than a human maid. I approached the shore, my father held the boat, I leapt lightly out, and in a moment was in his arms.”

“Life was then brilliant; I began to learn to hope and what brings a more bitter despair to the heart than hope destroyed?

“I had no idea that misery could arise from love…”

“I was always happy when near my father. It was a subject of regret to me whenever we were joined by a third person, yet if I turned with a disturbed look towards my father, his eyes fixed on me and beaming with tenderness instantly restored joy to my heart. O, hours of intense delight!“

“Like Psyche I lived for awhile in an enchanted palace, amidst odours, and music, and every luxurious delight; when suddenly I was left on a barren rock; a wide ocean of despair rolled around me: above all was black, and my eyes closed while I still inhabited a universal death.“

“The few weeks that I spent in London were the most miserable of my life: a great city is a frightful habitation to one sorrowing. The sunset and the gentle moon, the blessed motion of the leaves and the murmuring of waters are all sweet physicians to a distempered mind.”

“…when I saw the wild heath around me, and the evening star in the west, then I could weep, gently weep, and be at peace.”

“Love! What had I to love? Oh many things: there was the moonshine, and the bright stars; the breezes and the refreshing rains; there was the whole earth and the sky that covers it: all lovely forms that visited my imagination, all memories of heroism and virtue. Yet this was very unlike my early life although as then I was confined to Nature and books. Then I bounded across the fields; my spirit often seemed to ride upon the winds, and to mingle in joyful sympathy with the ambient air. Then if I wandered slowly I cheered myself with a sweet song or sweeter day dreams. I felt a holy rapture spring from all I saw. I drank in joy with life; my steps were light; my eyes, clear from the love that animated them, sought the heavens, and with my long hair loosened to the winds I gave my body and my mind to sympathy and delight. But now my walk was slow–My eyes were seldom raised and often filled with tears; no song; no smiles; no careless motion that might bespeak a mind intent on what surrounded it–I was gathered up into myself–a selfish solitary creature ever pondering on my regrets and faded hopes.”

“My heart was bleeding from its death’s wound; I could live no otherwise – Often amid apparent calm I was visited by despair and melancholy; gloom that nought could dissipate or overcome; a hatred of life; a carelessness of beauty; all these would by fits hold me nearly annihilated by their powers. Never for one moment when most placid did I cease to pray for death.”

“I had already planned the situation where I would live. It should be a solitary house on a wide plain near no other habitation: where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not mysanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I
fixed myself on a wide solitude.”

“But your sad mien never alters; your pulses beat and you breathe, yet you seem already to belong to another world; and sometimes, pray pardon my wild thoughts, when you touch my hand I am surprised to find your hand warm when all the fire of life seems extinct within you.”

“You turn from me; yet before you deny me reflect, Woodville, how sweet it were to cast off the load of tears and misery under which we now labour: and surely we shall find light after we have passed the dark valley. That drink will plunge us in a sweet slumber, and when we awaken what joy will be ours to find all our sorrows and fears past. A little patience, and all will be over… Behold, my cheek is flushed with pleasure at the imagination of death; all that we love are dead. (…) Cast off this blank look of human melancholy. Oh! that I had words to express the luxury of death that I might win you. I tell you we are no longer miserable mortals; we are about to become Gods; spirits free and happy as gods. What fool on a bleak shore, seeing a flowery isle on the other side with his lost love beckoning to him from it would pause because the wave is dark and turbid?”

“Do you mark my words; I have learned the language of despair: I have it all by heart, for I am Despair; and a strange being am I, joyous, triumphant Despair…. We lie down, and close our eyes with a gentle good night, and when we wake, we are free.”

“In solitude only shall I be myself; in solitude I shall be thine.”

“I now behold the glad sun of May. It was May, four years ago, that I first saw my beloved father; it was in May, three years ago that my folly destroyed the only being I was doomed to love. May is returned, and I die.”