Monday, 17 February 2014

Recollections - 2013-14 Session Six: Selections from John Stagg's The Minstrel of the North

Last week the Gothic Reading Group met to discuss a selection of pieces by the largely forgotten Romantic poet, John Stagg. Much of the conversation revolved around Stagg's place in relation to an existing scholarly understanding of the 18th and 19th century Gothic. This has lead Mark to produce a longer blog post than usual, framing the group's discussion of Stagg within a broader set of musings on canonicity and the Gothic. Rest assured, no substantive conclusions will be reached. If you (quite understandably) just want to read about Demon Lovers and Vampyres, skip ahead to the sub-heading.


Adding to the (Great) Gothic Tradition: the Case of John Stagg

I once taught a year-long survey module on nineteenth-century literature that dedicated an entire week's teaching to "women's poetry." As an opportunity to critique the postures and perspectives we'd already examined in the work of 'canonical' male poets, such as Browning and Tennyson, this worked. Give a group of bright undergraduates Browning's "My Last Duchess" or Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot" and then ask them to look at Christina Rossetti's "After Death" and you'll (hopefully) see why. But then came the inevitable question - sometimes from the students themselves and, where necessary, from me: "why do our male poets each get a week to themselves, but everything women have done in the medium needs to be dealt with in two hours?" 

It's easy to frame the issue as one of academic bad faith, placating the forces of canon-reformation with one hand, whilst carefully circumscribing them with the other: "Oh but we do  teach women's poetry. We have a whole class on it. . ." However, as anyone who's been in meetings and conversations at which modules are designed and their pedagogical aims are discussed will know, it's not as simple as that. A new addition means something else has to give way. We may not believe in canons, but, for the time-being at least, we're stuck with module reading lists. Limits to the latter are set pragmatically, rather than ideologically, but they're limits nonetheless. 

When I had time on that old C19 lit' course, I'd ask my students if they'd get rid of Tennyson and Browning (or both) in order to have an extra week on Rossetti or Barrett-Browning. They usually said no. They wanted more time to look at women poets, but they didn't want to do so without having a sufficient understanding of the way male poets wrote in the same period. Aye, there's the rub.

So what does all of this have to do with John Stagg? Quite a bit, I hope. Just bear with. It's a Sunday afternoon and I'm having thoughts.


As an emerging specialism in Literature, the Gothic always felt a little anti-canonical. It was the exciting undergraduate elective course, with the sex and death and extracts from sniffy contemporary reviews. It was your special subject. It wasn't George Eliot (except when it was). Nowadays the picture looks a little different. We may once have been wrongly disinherited heirs of usurped literary ancestors, but we've since strode back into the Ivory Tower like a giant statue and blown the place sky high. These days academic presses aren't just publishing monographs on the Gothic: they're establishing special series and imprints for it. We've won a victory and a worthwhile one too. The urge to be an academic hipster ("I was Gothic before it was REF-able!") needs to be staved off here because it's things like the success of fields like "Gothic Studies" (yes, we are now a field: though we haven't decided where to put the fence yet) that are at the heart of the important shifts in canonicity I just blethered about above. This is partly because we've always been quite careful to avoid canons of our own. Just look at a volume like David Punter's foundational The Literature of Terror. Sure, there's plenty in there on Radcliffe and Lewis, but there's also lots of great analysis of writers like Arthur Machen, W.H. Ainsworth and G.P.R. James; I mean, has anyone, since Punter, done any work on G.P.R. James in Gothic Studies?

More seminal.
In my time as a researcher I've seen more and more work being done on the myriad "other" authors of eighteenth-century Gothic: chapbooks and blue-books, authors working for the Minerva press and even writers like Charlotte Smith who wouldn't be caught dead publishing with William Lane. Meanwhile writers like Ann Radcliffe are no longer just big fish in  small (but flooding) ponds: they're getting headline slots on the main-stage of academic research, with their own essay collections and international conferences. We're even approaching a point at which scholars no longer act like John Cleese wandered onto the literary landscape just as the last volumes of Melmoth the Wanderer left the presses and yelled "stop all that Gothic, stop it right now, it's silly!". And then there's the University of Sheffield's Gothic Reading Group, tackling a forgotten Gothic poet whom noone has ever heard of.

But all of this just brings us back to the broader catch 22 my students and I grappled with on that Victorian survey course: How do we find space for it all? Where do we put John Stagg and why? What does the addition of his poetry to the Gothic corpus (which isn't a canon and sounds a bit like "corpse") do for us?

It's a question that came up as we discussed Stagg on Wednesday. Following some discussion of the poet's limited range and occasionally less-than-impeccable use of meter,  one of our members quite sensibly observed that we need to be wary of treating Stagg as remarkable simply because we happen to have stumbled across him. Until proven otherwise, we have to assume that sufficiently painstaking archival research would turn up a lot  of other obscure "Gothic" poetry from the same period (though we would, of course, be fascinated if it didn't). I think this is an important lesson for Gothic Studies in general, as we get to grips with a mode that has always inhabited popular genres and generated huge numbers of texts.

The bit of the blog that's actually about Stagg

So, what does Stagg offer Gothic Studies then? Well, he's certainly got a good line in graphic horror: We'd barely sat down before members had begun pointing to the visceral nature of the afternoon's material. "The Messenger of Death", for example, pulls no punches when its titular phantom reveals his "flesh by hideous monsters stripped" whilst "sea bubbles" fill "his vacant eyes." Meanwhile, "The White Woman" wears a "shroud . . . as white as the snow" but "corruption besmears her foul temples about / whilst volumes of worms from her mouth she casts out." On few occasion's has the reading group's traditional combination of cake and death been quite so uncomfortable.

From there we went on to examine Stagg's use of Gothic tropes and templates, asking what he appeared merely imitative and where (if at all) he might be said to innovate. Personally, I found that "The Hermit of Rockliffe" seemed to offer the most impressive digest of existing Gothic narrative. With acts of embedded story-telling, mysterious orphans and familial reconciliations in monastic spaces this poem is a great example of the Gothic novel in miniature and it's no surprise that Stagg chooses to lead off his collection with it. The "Hermit" begins with a narrative that might be at home in a patriotic "Whig Gothic" (not to be confused with Gothic Wigs). Nasty Scottish raiders have stolen a heroine and been seen off in turn by a hero who will turn out to be none other than the grandson of Edward I (no, really). This hero is called Alfred and his father is named Edmund (no, really). He's going to inherit all of the things and everyone is going to live happily ever after in a nation that has reformed its leading family after a proper demonstration of martial valor. The problem comes with everything that happens in the middle of the poem, during an inset tale, which is basically Walpole's "The Mysterious Mother." This is to say that "The Hermit of Rockcliffe" is "The Mysterious Mother" bursting out of Reeve's "The Old English Baron." Yep. Suddenly familiar reconciliation doesn't seem like such a comfortable basis for national cohesion.  Idiot that I am, I hadn't highlighted the "Hermit" in advance and - being the longest poem in the collection - it hadn't been widely read within the group. It's well worth a look though.

A pleasant village green and church, setting for Stagg's "The White Woman"

Of course, other Stagg poems also adapt established Gothic materials. The Minstrel of the North is home to several poems like "The Messenger of Death" and "The White Woman" which draw an existing tradition of Demon Lover balladry, itself one of several ingredients going into the Gothic melting pot of slightly mixed metaphors during the C18. However, what seems peculiar about Stagg's take on these tales of spectral visitation is the way he seems to leave out (or severely under-develop) their moral framework. Johanna in "The White Woman" is able to recognise her grim spectral visitant and cries out "I've seen her before," but unlike in Lewis's "The Grim White Woman" (to which Stagg nods in a preceding note) there is no sense of what has caused Johanna to deserve this spectral visitation. Johanna and her husband sit "at the door of the alehouse" on a sunny day, drinking "bumpers" together and gazing at the beautiful prospect in the village "which gave fair Johanna her birth." The view includes "the old church" with its "tall spreading ash" and "steeple so gay" but these prospects do not diminish the "mirth" of the villagers. That is until the White Woman is seen striding out of the church-yard door, in the broad daylight, having come out of an opening grave. She is subsequently followed by "spectres and goblins" who "tear up" the churchyard "like furies" and reveal "the skulls" of Johanna's ancestors, before proceeding to kick them around "like footballs" - a grim inversion in the holiday atmosphere established at the poem's opening. 

Why does all this happen? We don't really know. Johanna's consciousness focalises the poem as her fellow revelers stand in apparent shock. Is this a meditation on a kind of female hysteria, brought on by drink? - a peculiar and slightly sexist temperance narrative? Or just a quick run through the sensational denouement of an established narrative template, without the preceding exposition? Is Stagg doing something interesting with the form, or is he just cashing in on the horror without bothering to set it up?

The Solway Firth, setting for Stagg's "The Messenger of Death"

The background for "The Messenger of Death" is more developed, as the spirit of "Lord Walter" returns in phantom disguise to lead his wife to her death in the Solway Firth. He has perished with "his squadrons" somewhere in the Bay of Biscay, after seeking to join a war "on fair Hesperia's plains / where proud Brittania's banners fly." Again, there's no moral context for the spectre's actions: Lady Jane has not been unfaithful and nor is she wantonly eager to go roaming with the strange figure who comes to summon her outside in the "whirlwind" and rain. For all its familiarity, this isn't just another Lenore. Instead, the poem seems to draw anxiety from something more immediate to its 1810 publication.

A demon lover, after Lenore
 Nothing marks the poem chronologically, but the details of Lord Walter's expedition make sense for an officer heading out to fight in the ongoing Peninsular Campaign and falling foul of weather or enemy naval activity on route. Read in this way the poem is no longer a quick dip into a readily available archive of exciting Gothic narrative by a poet looking to pad out a volume for an audience keen on grim balladry. Instead it appears as a more specific meditation on the much more contemporary horror of a distant foreign war - "a woeful war" where "death and devastation reign" - quite literally coming home to the north of England. I'm wary of over-reading here, but it seems as if Stagg could be replacing a familiar trope - concerning the horrific, but morally 'justified' punishment of wayward or wanton women - with a greater horror that is disturbing precisely because it lacks any obvious moral logic. Could that sensibility help explain "The White Woman", in which a tranquil English village can also become a scene of horror across which corpses roll and walk?

Nowhere, setting for Stagg's "The Vampyre"
Our third Stagg poem found us more interested in Stagg's credentials as a founder of Gothic templates than an innovator. Despite having read more of Varney the Vampyre than most sane people, I'm not much of an expert on English literary vampires. That caveat in place, I'm not actually aware of any complete and explicit vampire poetry (or tale) before Stagg's "The Vampyre" in 1810. This makes it intriguing to note - as the group did - that Stagg seems to have most of the major vampire lore in place here. The context seems loosely aristocratic (we aren't really sure, but the characters seem to be able to afford tombs rather than common burials and the vampire is called "Sigismund" rather than "Bob"). Sunlight (or, just light) seems to see off the undead and a staking does for them permanently. When not exercising their "suckosity," the vampires hide in tombs, bloated with their stolen blood. If we include Stagg's "Argument," they might even be able to turn into animals (or umbilical cords). 

On a thematic level there's already a tension (again in the "Argument") between medical and clerical explanations for vampiric activity: the vampyre could be a product of residual post-mortem "vital forces" or of incredibly successful possession by demons that spend the rest of their time pretending to be farm animals (or umbilical cords). We wondered what Stagg's position on this was and how seriously we were meant to take the "Argument" in which competing secular and sacred explanations are offered and Stagg seems to strain for an appropriate medical discourse ("suckosity," "phlebotomised," etc) despite apparently endorsing a spiritual context for vampirism as he explains the processes (and tiers) of possession. It's easy to chuckle at such an apparently bizarre paratext, but, as one of our members pointed out, this very strangeness points to the potential novelty of the material. After all, if the reader knows what a vampire is, do they need an "Argument" for the poem?

A vampire cow. Apparently.
We also observed that the vampire is defeated by a very specific act of "enlightenment" as the heroine reveals a lamp that scares him off. Does this speak to the different 'scientific' and spiritual explanations in the Argument? In keeping with this, the manner in which the vampires (Sigismund and his victim, Herman) are finally disposed of makes them appear more as an uncomfortable inconvenience than a fundamental physical and psychological threat. A state "council" decrees that "shudd'ring nature should be freed / from pests like these" and the two vampires are accordingly staked (together, it seems) so that "from them their friends have nought to fear." The tone feels almost bathetic, as life goes on outside the sepulchre in which the vampires are not so much destroyed as managed: fixed and forgotten. Are the poem and argument are intentionally comical in their presentation (and treatment) of the vampire as something which is already an artefact of a pre-enlightenment superstition - something for explorer's tales and pseudo-anthropology? Is this why the poem lacks any obvious Cumbrian context?

The poem's treatment of gender also came in for some interesting discussion. It's down to the poem's heroine, Gertrude, to defeat the vampire, but she can only do so following her husband's instructions and this is apparently insufficient to prevent his own conversion. Herman and Sigismund, meanwhile, exist in a strange homosocial bond that persists into (un)death and ultimately sees them skewered together in the same tomb. 

Despite its brevity then, Stagg's "Vampyre" emerges as an interesting text. If it is foundational then it's interesting to mark just how much it establishes and that this appears to extend beyond genre tropes into the issues and anxieties we find those tropes marking in later vampire fiction. 

Includes Stagg. I think.
To return to my framing dilemma: Is there a case for John Stagg in these conclusions? Does he have a place in the expanding module-lists (if not the canons) of Gothic Studies? As the person responsible for suggesting Stagg (and as someone who's had a lot of fun researching his career) I feel it falls to me to advocate for him, or at least to find out how far it's possible to do so.

Stagg's greatest claim to interest us may still be his self-appointed status as a regional Gothic poet and, in this sense, he may need to be considered comparatively. If Stagg's work indicates a local market for Gothic verse (as I suggested in my previous blog) then we need to ask if other markets existed and how they operated. Personally, I'd be interested if Stagg's re-workings of established Gothic narrative represent a broader process through which successful templates are re-fashioned for new markets. This is all the more interesting if a poem like "The Messenger of Death" is using these materials to focus a more specific local anxiety. Or what of "The Hermit of Rockliffe" which concludes by warning against the militarism (and Scottophobia) with which one part of its stock Gothic narrative begins? Does this also address concerns specific to the borders in 1810? If so, poetry such as Stagg's might shed light on the Gothic's more immediate afterlife, as it resonated in new genres and markets.

Related to this is Stagg's own sense of the Gothic as a popular genre - something I explored in the previous blog. Whether or not we allow it into our modern sense of the Gothic Tradition, writing such as this allows us to see a different 'canon' operating in the period we're actually studying. Stagg knew who he thought the 'canon' of Gothic  and Romantic writers were: Lewis, Burns, Wordsworth and others. His various paratexts indicate that he may also have felt an 'anxiety of influence' with respect to these as he attempted to make his own claim to their genres whilst acknowledging their role in defining or popularising them. If we take this approach, perhaps  "The Vampyre" becomes more interesting. Though it makes little to no sense as a Cumbrian ballad, could this poem be Stagg's attempt to offer something new in the tradition he was using?  Is this why the tale receives such a peculiarly overdeveloped argument? Is it meant to be a self-consciously new Gothic template, exceeding the pseudo-vampiric elements in existing Demon Lover ballads and poems like Lenore? If so, what does it mean if Stagg did succeed in establishing so much of the vampire lore that would live on in better known texts? Recalling the potentially oblique relationship between the eighteenth-century Gothic and the Vampire tale, is it fascinating to ask if the first British Vampire fiction actually emerged from a minor author's attempt to out-do existing Gothic? 

Is any of this enough to get Stagg onto a module reading list or into a few articles? I don't know. He's had two hours of discussion by the finest minds in the Gothic (Reading Group) though and two blogs worth of my meandering musing. That's more than George Eliot can say.

Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English, working on eighteenth-century Gothic and travel-writing. He challenges you to use the word "suckosity" in a sentence today.

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