- William Blake’s Gothic Imagination: Bodies of Horror ed. by Chris Bundock, Elizabeth Effinger
Manchester University Press, 2018. 312pp. £80. ISBN 978-1-5261-2194-3.
Given William Blake’s status as political radical and poet during the tumultuous 1790s when Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) gripped the British imagination as much as the September Massacres in Paris (1792), it is surprising that there has not yet been a more serious effort to take into account the influence of the gothic genre on Blake’s violent, provocative verses. This is the ambitious enterprise of Bundock and Effinger’s collection of essays: a volume that desires not only to build a bridge between gothic and Blakean scholarship, but to inspire other scholars to continue finding new connections. As the editors write in their introduction, the volume aims “to offer a space for concentration on some of the intersections of Blake with the Gothic, not to dictate the uniform subsumption of the one by the other. We do not deny—in fact, we hope—that this collection does not exhaust future readings of Blake and the Gothic” (18). The intellectual energy and breadth of the various articles will assuredly stimulate the interests of other scholars to find further productive intersections between Blake’s work and the rise of the gothic as either a genre or an aesthetic mode.
The introduction provides a broad, nuanced definition of the gothic that is less concerned with the rise of the popular gothic novel from 1760 to 1820 than with the gothic as a politically charged aesthetic: a paradoxical fusion of chivalric conservatism and radical, boundary-breaking iconoclasm. Bundock and Effinger offer contemporary examples of the gothic and its communication with Blake’s work, particularly Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series of novels and Ridley Scott’s movie Prometheus, which Jason Whittaker’s astute essay later in the volume covers in detail. They further provide a historical and political context for what the term “gothic” meant in the 1790s to both political conservatives and radicals, offering a base for the anthology’s various interpretations of Blake’s work as reinforcing the gothic’s radical potential while overtly parodying antiquarian monarchism.
By choosing to ground its definition of the gothic more in aesthetic concerns than in specific genre texts, the introduction to the anthology is exemplary of one of the strengths and one of the provocative gaps in its various analyses: a divergence away from the literary gothic movement of the Romantic era and a move towards a broader definition of “gothic” that is primarily aesthetic and political. This accounts for the volume’s surprising lack of comparative criticism involving gothic works contemporary to Blake’s own verses (such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel [End Page 371] Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman  or Lewis’s The Monk, both of which offer parallels to Blake’s critiques of the repression of women’s sexuality and ecclesiastical censorship) and its greater investment in situating Blake in dialogue with theorists of the grotesque and sublime like Kant, Deleuze, and Kristeva. Given the breadth of its definition of the gothic, this volume should appeal not merely to students of Romanticism, but to students of postmodern theory and media studies as well.
The anthology is divided thematically into four parts. The first is primarily concerned with the gothic as an aesthetic that Blake both mimics and subverts in his own verse. All three essays in this section equate Blakean gothicism with iconoclasm, drawing out the political implications of the aesthetic. David Baulch’s essay, for instance, focuses on the ways in which Blake merges the myth of Joseph of Arimathea and the Christianizing of Britain with the historical anachronism of gothic architecture, making the compelling argument that Blake’s post-1790s turn to the gothic provided him with a medium with which to transcend both the disappointments of the French Revolution and the entrenched conservatism of the Lake Poets. Similarly, Kiel Shaub makes the case that Blake’s employment of the gothic is an anti-aesthetic contra the traditional conservatism...