Recently, I have been working my way through C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942). The text unfolds as a series of correspondence written in Hell from a ranking demon, Screwtape, to his aspiring young nephew, Wormwood, offering advice on how to best ensure the damnation of a man known only as “the Patient.” In view of Lewis’ legacy as a Christian apologist, the Letters’ rhetorical strategy appears glaringly obvious: by playing the devil Lewis hoped to inculcate a stronger sense of faith in his readership. Yet, what is striking about the Letters is how vociferously anti-Romantic the text is in its handling of theology, eschatology, and those weighty matters of doubt and faith. In one letter, for instance, Screwtape holds Coleridge up as a model of the kind of “superficial” worship of the divine that Wormwood should aim to cultivate in his patient in order to secure his spiritual downfall.
Although we normally discuss terror, horror, and the sublime in relation to early Gothic literature, I’d like to call our attention to another similar, but significantly distinguishable affect: dread. Dread is unique because of its future orientation, something we don’t normally talk about with the past-dominated Gothic. However, I’d like to present two readings of dread, in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and MG Lewis’s The Monk (1796) to demonstrate how integral this expectant affect is to the genre.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
These opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ are perhaps the best-known example of the microcosm in Romantic literature. The poem comes from one of Blake’s notebooks, The Pickering Manuscript, where it appears without line breaks (however, these lines are often published as a separate quatrain). It expresses the idea that the beauty, mystery, and totality of the miniature is characteristic of the whole.
The Romantic poets had a special interest in the ordinary for its microcosmic and representational roles in poetry. In his Biographia Literaria, S.T. Coleridge describes poetry as a special kind of composition set apart from works of science by its metric and phonetic structures and designed for the purpose of pleasure. On the whole, poetry produces delight compatible with the gratification produced by each component part, which harmonizes with the other essentials.