Dark Romanticism - Study Guide
Dark Romanticism is a genre steeped in complex emotions and expressions of individualism. We hope this guide is particularly useful for students and teachers.
Overview of Dark Romanticism, Exemplary Works, Etymology & Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
First, let's deal with the meaning of Romanticism. It values beliefs and emotions as more important than logic or facts. The individual comes first, and often involves the worship of nature (or a whale?). Dark Romanticism is distinguished from Romanticism in its emphasis on human fallibility and sin (they are pessimists), whereas Romantics believe in human goodness (they are optimists). According to Dark Romantics, even good men and women drift towards sin and self-destruction, and there can be unintended consequences that arise from well-intended social reforms.
The genre of "Dark Romanticism" is thought to have emerged from the Transcendental Movement in 19th century America. Whereas Transcendentalists felt perfection and their own divinity as innate qualities of mankind (they thiought utopian communes would work), Dark Romantics believed humans gravitate to evil and self-destruction (striving for a utopian society is a waste of time). Stories in this genre share many characteristics of Realism (tell it like it is, what can go wrong, will). Dark Romantics focus on human fallibility, self-destruction, judgement, punishment, as well as the psychological effects of guilt and sin. Authors who embrace this genre include Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson. There's an even darker side of the Dark Romantics: Gothic Literature, which involves sheer terror, personal torment, graphic morbidity, and the supernatural.
Here's a helpful overview of the characteristics, origin, and exemplar authors to help you better understand Dark Romanticism. You might also enjoy H.L. Mencken's analysis of New Puritanism, Puritanism As a Literary Force.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville is one of the most recognized novels in the genre of Dark Romanticism. Melville's Captain Ahab is the prototype of human fallibility, and he draws upon amble Biblical allusions (including his character names) centering on themes of judgement, guilt, sin, souls, and the end of the world. See Moby-Dick - Study Guide
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne exemplifies Dark Romanticism in its themes of imposed judgement and punishment for those who commit sin, resulting in alienation and self-destruction. Hawthorne's most famous novel examined the human soul and our morality-- certainly a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-intended social reform and blind religious fervor. While Hawthorne dappled in numerous genres, including Transcendentalism, he found his niche in Dark Romanticism, albeit on the less pessimistic side. He believed that for all of our weaknesses, hypocrisy and suffering, "the truth of the human heart" usually prevails. Another exemplary work of Dark Romanticism is his story, Young Goodman Brown.
Practically all of Edgar Allan Poe's canon falls in the Dark Romantic genre, in which he explored the psychology of the conscious and subconscious mind. A Descent Into the Maelstrom is a fine example. Many of Poe's works are on the dark end of the Dark Romantic spectrum, into the realm of Gothic Fiction with macabre tales of horror, morbidity, and madness. Fine example: The Fall of the House of Usher, which deals with mental conditions such as hypochondria and hyperethesia (sensory overload). Poe was also credited as the creator of the detective fiction genre, as in his story, The Purloined Letter. Poe literally provided a template for detective authors to follow, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A fun fact about Poe: he really disliked Transcendentalists, referring to them as "Frogpondians" (after the pool in Boston Commons).
Emily Dickinson challenged the definitions of poetry and exemplify Dark Romanticism. It's well-known that she led an increasingly reclusive life, afflicted by severe depression, and never saw success during her lifetime (she died at 56). Yet, her creative energy, willingness to fight conventions (no titles, short lines), and prolific writing (she published nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime) established her literary prowess and blazed a trail for other poets and women writers to follow.
The etymology of the word "Romanticism" is from the Latin word "romant" which means "in the Roman manner." It became known as a style of art, literature, and music that drew on emotions, intuition, and imagination, rather than rationality and science. While the Romantic Movement began in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, it migrated to America in the early 19th century.
American Romanticism authors were most prolific between 1830-1865. Within the genre of Romanticism, two opposing sub-genres emerged: the optimists who believed in human goodness and spirituality, grew in to the Transcendentalism Movement; the pessimists, who embraced human fallibility and our predisposition towards sin, grew into the Dark Romantic Movement. The Dark Romantics were drawn to the dark side of the human psyche, the evil side of spiritual truth. The Dark Romantics rebelled against the Puritans, who came to the country to escape persecution, but imposed their own religion and societal rules (government) on others, judging those who did not conform. These authors were drawn to human's imperfections, self-destruction, sin, and the hazards of social reform. Authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote extensively about persecution of minorities in America, as in The Scarlet Letter, and The Maypole of Merry Mount.
It is helpful to understand the historical backdrop for the emergence of the Dark Romantics and the Transcendentalists. America had established itself as an independent nation, and was struggling with the morality of slavery, social reforms, and the rights of the minority. Abraham Lincoln rose to power leading the country with a truly distinctive American voice-- eloquent, yet simple and coarse language embracing the country's failures, triumph, and tragedy. His fallibility was very much in-line with the Dark Romantic authors who published their major works shortly before the American Civil War and its messy aftermath into the Reconstruction era. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, the same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was published a year later.
The Transcendentalists were busy at this same time in history: Thoreau's Walden was published in 1854, Whitman's Leaves of Grass a year later (1855). In 1865, the Civil War ended, Lincoln was assassinated, slavery was abolished. The country was no longer naive, more cynical, and a lot wiser than it had been a half century earlier, an ambivalence-- balancing pessimism and optimism-- that was reflected in the works of so many of the period's authors. Visit American History in Literature
Here is an excellent summary of Important Events during the Romantic Period (1825-1910), which encompasses an interesting musical history as well.
Explain what the following quotes meaning and why they are exemplars of Dark Romanticism:
"Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgement, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate de fois gras.” -- Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
"My Faith is gone!" cried he, after one stupefied moment. "There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, devil; for to thee is this world given." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown
"The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds—the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown
"Such was the effect of this simple piece of crepe, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meetinghouse. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them...A subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil
"An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why." -- Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of UsherYet if hope has flown away In a night, or in a day, In a vision, or in none, Is it therefore the less gone? All that we see or seem Is but a dream within a dream. -- Edgar Allan Poe's A Dream Within A Dream
"I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white--whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words--and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness, of immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture." -- Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the PendulumBecause I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality. -- Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death As all the heavens were a bell, And Being but an ear, And I and silence some strange race, Wrecked, solitary, here. -- Emily Dickinson's I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
“No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection."
"Shocks you, my husband!" cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. "Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!" -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark
1. Identify the characteristics of Dark Romanticism as expressed in works by American authors.
2. Explain the difference between "Romanticism" and "Dark Romanticism."
3. How does Gothic Literature differ from "Dark Romanticism"?
4. Nathaniel Hawthorne began his writing career considered a Romantic author, then moved towards Transcendentalism, before rejecting it in favor of the genre of his greatest success: "Dark Romanticism." Find an example of his work from each of these genres and discuss their contrasting styles.
5. Discuss the treatment of morality and social conventions (peer pressure) in this genre. Feel free to draw from The Scarlet Letter.
6. Identify a modern author whom you think fits the Dark Romanticism genre (e.g., Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Joyce Carol Oates). Provide evidence to support your choice, providing examples from their work.
7. Discuss Emily Dickinson's seemingly contradictory voices as a poet? Select at least two poems, identify elements of depression/hope, resilience/morbidity, and love/loss.
8. Why are readers drawn to stories about human fallibility? Discuss how Dark Romantic authors appealed to their readers.
9. In Hawthorne's The Birthmark: Georgiana tells her husband, "You cannot love what shocks you!" What is your opinion? Is it the imperfections we all possess that attracts us, or are these the attributes that repel us in disgust? Explain the message in this story.
10. Explain the meaning of this quote from Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (chapter 87) in the context of Dark Romanticism:
“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”
11. In Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil, what does Reverend Hooper's veil symbolize and why does he wear it?
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Dark romanticism is a literary subgenre that emerged from the Transcendental philosophical movement popular in nineteenth-century America. Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society at the time, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church, which was taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among Transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state which "transcends" the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Prominent Transcendentalists included Sophia Peabody, the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the leading dark romanticists. For a time, Peabody and Hawthorne lived at the Brook Farm Transcendentalist utopian commune.
Works in the dark romantic spirit were influenced by Transcendentalism, but did not entirely embrace the ideas of Transcendentalism. Such works are notably less optimistic than Transcendental texts about mankind, nature, and divinity.
The term dark romanticism comes from both the pessimistic nature of the subgenre's literature and the influence it derives from the earlier Romantic literary movement. Dark Romanticism's birth, however, was a mid-nineteenth-century reaction to the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism originated in New England among intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller and found wide popularity from 1836 through the late 1840s. The movement came to have influence in a number of areas of American expression, including its literature, as writers growing up in the Transcendental atmosphere of the time were affected. Some, including Poe, Hawthorne and Melville, found Transcendental beliefs far too optimistic and egotistical and reacted by modifying them in their prose and poetry–works that now comprise the subgenre that was Dark Romanticism. Authors considered most representative of dark romanticism are Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, poet Emily Dickinson and Italian poet Ugo Foscolo.
While Transcendentalism influenced individual Dark Romantic authors differently, literary critics observe works of the subgenre to break from Transcendentalism’s tenets in a few key ways. Firstly, Dark Romantics are much less confident about the notion perfection is an innate quality of mankind, as believed by Transcendentalists. Subsequently, Dark Romantics present individuals as prone to sin and self-destruction, not as inherently possessing divinity and wisdom. G.R. Thompson describes this disagreement, stating while Transcendental thought conceived of a world in which divinity was immanent, "the Dark Romantics adapted images of anthropomorphized evil in the form of Satan, devils, ghosts … vampires, and ghouls."
Secondly, while both groups believe nature is a deeply spiritual force, Dark Romanticism views it in a much more sinister light than does Transcendentalism, which sees nature as a divine and universal organic mediator. For these Dark Romantics, the natural world is dark, decaying, and mysterious; when it does reveal truth to man, its revelations are evil and hellish. Finally, whereas Transcendentalists advocate social reform when appropriate, works of Dark Romanticism frequently show individuals failing in their attempts to make changes for the better. Thompson sums up the characteristics of the subgenre, writing:
Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind—these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought.
Relation to Gothic fiction
Popular in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Gothic fiction is known for its incorporation of many conventions that are also found in Dark Romantic works. Gothic fiction originated with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto in 1764. Works of the genre commonly aim to inspire terror, including through accounts of the macabre and supernatural, haunted structures, and the search for identity; critics often note Gothic fiction's "overly melodramatic scenarios and utterly predictable plots." In general, with common elements of darkness and the supernatural, and featuring characters like maniacs and vampires, Gothic fiction is more about sheer terror than Dark Romanticism's themes of dark mystery and skepticism regarding man. Still, the genre came to influence later Dark Romantic works, particularly some of those produced by Poe.
Earlier British authors writing within the movement of Romanticism such as Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and John Polidori who are frequently linked to gothic fiction are also sometimes referred to as Dark Romantics. Their tales and poems commonly feature outcasts from society, personal torment, and uncertainty as to whether the nature of man will bring him salvation or destruction.
Many consider American writers Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville to be the major Dark Romantic authors.
Edgar Allan Poe
Main article: Edgar Allan Poe
Many consider Edgar Allan Poe to be the seminal dark romantic author. Many of his works are generally considered part of the genre. Poe strongly disliked Transcendentalism. He referred to followers of the movement as "Frogpondians" after the pond on Boston Common. and ridiculed their writings as "metaphor-run," lapsing into "obscurity for obscurity's sake" or "mysticism for mysticism's sake." Poe once wrote in a letter to Thomas Holley Chivers that he did not dislike Transcendentalists, "only the pretenders and sophists among them."
Much of his poetry and prose features his characteristic interest in exploring the psychology of man, including the perverse and self-destructive nature of the conscious and subconscious mind. Some of Poe’s notable dark romantic works include the short stories "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" and poems "The Raven" and "Ulalume."
His most recurring themes deal with questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning.
Main article: Herman Melville
Best known during his lifetime for his travel books, a twentieth-century revival in the study of Herman Melville’s works has left “Moby-Dick” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” among his most highly regarded. Also known for writing of man's blind ambition, cruelty, and defiance of God, his themes of madness, mystery, and the triumph of evil over good in these two works make them notable examples of the dark romanticism sub-genre.
As Melville matured he began to use the fictional form to probe metaphysical and psychological questions, culminating in his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. This long, thematically innovative novel had no precedent and can fairly be said to stand alone in its trenchant use of symbols and archetypes. The novel follows the monomaniacal quest of the sea captain Ahab for the white whale Moby-Dick, and is a figurative exploration of the author's tortured quest to come to terms with God. According to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville "can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief."
Main article: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne is the dark romantic writer with the closest ties to the American Transcendental movement. He was associated with the community in New England and even lived at the Brook Farm Transcendentalist Utopian commune for a time before he became troubled by the movement; his literature later became anti-transcendental in nature. Also troubled by his ancestors' participation in the Salem witch trials, Hawthorne's short stories, including "The Minister's Black Veil" and "Mudkips of Fire"," frequently take the form of "cautionary tales about the extremes of individualism and reliance on human beings" and hold that guilt and sin are qualities inherent in man.
Like Melville, Hawthorne was preoccupied with New England's religious past. For Melville, religious doubt was an unspoken subtext to much of his fiction, while Hawthorne brooded over the Puritan experience in his novels and short stories. The direct descendant of John Hawthorne, a presiding judge at the Salem witch trials in 1692, Hawthorne struggled to come to terms with Puritanism within his own sensibility and as the nation expanded geographically and intellectually.
Elements contained within the following literary works by Dark Romantic authors make each representative of the subgenre:
- "Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe
- "The Birth-Mark" (1843) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- "The Minister's Black Veil" (1843) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville
- "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1856) by Herman Melville
- "Ligeia" (1838) by Edgar Allan Poe
- "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
- "Dream-Land" (1844) by Edgar Allan Poe
- "The Raven" (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
- "Ulalume" (1847) by Edgar Allan Poe
The Dark romantic authors represented a response to the optimism of the ideology of Transcendentalism. While Transcendentalism focused on the individual, eschewing reason for spiritual intuition and asserting that God already exists in the individual, the Dark romantics took a somewhat dimmer view of the essential goodness of human nature. They focused on the dark side of the soul, the reality of evil and sin in the human heart, undercutting the optimistic worldview of the Transcendentalists.
The legacy of the Dark romantics can be found in a variety of media. From early in its inception, the film industry created the vampire and horror film genres in such works as Nosferatu (1922) and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920). These have spawned an entire genre. Another genre that was deeply influenced by Dark romanticism was the graphic novels, originating with the Batman comics in the 1930s.
- ↑ David Galens, (ed.), Literary Movements for Students Vol. 1. (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2002), 319.
- ↑ Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1958), ix.
- ↑ Donald N. Koster, "Influences of Transcendentalism on American Life and Literature." in Literary Movements for Students Vol. 1. ed. David Galens, (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2002), 336.
- ↑ David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988. ISBN 0674065654), 524
- ↑ G.R. Thompson, (ed.) "Introduction: Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition." Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1974), 6.
- ↑ G.R. Thompson, (ed.) "Introduction: Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition." Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1974), 5.
- ↑ 7.07.1The Romantic Period: Topics, The Gothic: Overview. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
- ↑ Donald N. Koster, "Influences of Transcendentalism on American Life and Literature," Literary Movements for Students Vol. 1. ed. David Galens, (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2002), 336.
- ↑ Kent Ljunquist, 2002, "The poet as critic," The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes. (Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521797276), 15
- ↑ Daniel Royot, "Poe's humor," as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes, (Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0521797276), 61–62.
- ↑ Kent Ljunquist, "The poet as critic" collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes, (Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0521797276), 15.
- ↑ Silverman, 169.
- ↑ W.H. Auden, "Introduction." in Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism Vol. 1. (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981), 518.
- ↑ J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. (Yale University Press, 1987, ISBN 0300037732), 3.
- ↑ David Galens 2002, 322.
- ↑ Tiffany K. Wayne, "Nathaniel Hawthorne." Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2006), 140.
- Galens, David, (ed.). Literary Movements for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2002. ISBN 9780787665197
- Hayes, Kevin J. (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521797276
- Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. ISBN 0300037732
- Koster, Donald N. Transcendentalism in America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975. OCLC3255408
- Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. Ohio University Press, 1980. ISBN 978-0821405819
- Mullane, Janet and Robert T. Wilson, (eds.). Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism Vols. 1, 16, 24. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. ISBN 9780810358164
- Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988. ISBN 0674065654
- Royot, Daniel. "Poe's humor" in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521797276
- Thompson, G.R. (ed.). Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1974. ASIN B0000E8P95
- Wayne, Tiffany K. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. New York: Facts On File, 2006. ISBN 9780816056262
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