Gothic and Romanticism: An Analysis of The Supernatural and Sublime In Mary Robinson’s, “The Haunted Beach”
Seeped in Gothic themes and influences, the murder of a shipwrecked sailor divulges with details in Mary Robinson’s, “The Haunted Beach”. However, explanations surrounding the characters are scarce; the reasoning as to why the sailor was murdered, or the origin of the fisherman remains unknown. Instead, the focus is on the environment – specifically nature – and its engagement with the fisherman on a physical and psychological level. As with any poetry of Romanticism, the environment is an integral part of sublimity. Nature is a powerful entity that can inspire fear as much as admiration. Thus, any personifications given to describe the poem’s environment can be an influence to, or a part of the fisherman’s state of mind. By interweaving Gothic elements into the realm of Romanticism, Robinson addresses the darker side of human behavior, and in doing so, also creates a different approach in how the relationship between consciousness and the environment can be examined.
The beach and its’ surroundings are personified with human or monster-like traits, because they are the projections of the fisherman’s state of mind. Aside from the fisherman, there are no other individuals on the “lonely desart Beach” (Robinson 1), but as the title of the poem indicates, the beach is haunted and is very much alive with supernatural figures. The beach is seen as a monster; it has a wide cavern with “shad’wy jaws” (15) that waits with the “yawning ocean” (56) to swallow anything coming towards it, such as the ship and the crewmembers of the murdered sailor. The fisherman’s home is a “haunted hut” (37) that seems to have been built precariously close to the ocean, since the “frothy breakers” (40) are able to attack the “low door” (39) continuously.
The moonlight also appears several times throughout the poem – indicating that the moon is a witness and participator to everything. Light is traditionally associated with “goodness”, but the moonlight is personified as a creature that guides and lures the sailor to his death. The sailor follows the moonlight’s “silv’ry carpet” (60) to reach the shore, but once he does, he is attacked by the fisherman, and eventually dies from “ten wide gashes in his head” (43). Also, the green billows – surrounding the “Spectres, [that are gliding] hand in hand” (26), the ocean and the shores – are personified as playful individuals. However, they create an eerie presence that perpetually surrounds what the fisherman sees and where he lives. Thus, the green billows’ playfulness can be observed more as a taunt to the fisherman, and his inability to escape from such a frightening environment.
Furthermore, the usage of Gothic elements allows for addressing unmentionable desires and thoughts that are suppress due to morality, or society’s judgements. Once these taboos are committed, the sublime experience also changes. Because the “… gothic nature of romanticism places issues of alterity, of the uncanny and the Seen and the Not-Seen, in the foreground” (Wang 208), the validity of the fisherman’s projections concerning his environment has to be examined, since the supernatural figures and hauntings are his creations. The cause behind the sailor’s murder remains unacknowledged, since the importance lies in how the sailor’s death influences the fisherman. The lonely and deserted beach represents the fisherman’s isolation and disconnect to others or what society values. He doesn’t kill the sailor over wealth, since the “Spanish gold” (Robinson 52), was “Plung’d, where the billows play’d” (54) when the ship sank, nor is he merciful towards the sailor either.
The sailor’s death is the embodiment of the fisherman’s capability for evil. The fisherman’s “guilty mind” (75) leaves him to the mercy of a vengeful-like nature; he is unable to leave, even though his home – the hut – is constantly attacked by nature (the waves). He only has “dreary” (76) prospects, because he spends the next “Full thirty years” (73) never achieving anything. He “toil’d and toil’d in vain” (65), and eventually dies with “Solitude and Pain” (80), wasting his “loathsome life away” (81). Not only did his life amount to nothing, atonement is also an impossible task for the fisherman. Ultimately, he remains stranded to the mercy of his guilt and his environment. Though it can be argued that the fisherman’s perceptions are “abstractions of reason [that] are at once deceitful… They misdirect, distract, and lack substance. They are ghostly deceptions” (Wang 211), they nonetheless are still true because they are a part of the fisherman’s “reality”. By breaking away from the moral system and committing a taboo (murder), his consciousness warps into a terrifying force that completely changes how he views reality. The sense of dread, hopelessness and fear resonates throughout the poem. These feelings are a part of his sublime experience in this environment based on what he has done. The chilling and violent depiction of nature is not a source of admiration, but rather, nature is a terrifying force that he cannot control or understand, so he lives in fear.
Unlike many of the poems in Romanticism where the environment and nature are exalted as powerful, but majestic, or beautiful forces, Robinson’s interpretation of nature is menacing, since the sublime experience is not necessarily a peaceful one. Robinson may not idealize nature – in this poem at least – as much as other poets, but “to see the gothic in romanticism is to see how in so many ways romantic texts are haunted by revolution… the haunting comes in many forms: of a revolution about to occur; of one that came and failed; of one that failed but that might still happen” (Wang 209). The reader may not agree with the fisherman’s actions, but in his world, by acting against the established moral system, that is his revolution. As to whether his “revolt” succeeded or not, it’s entirely on the reader’s interpretation. However, what can be conclusively drawn is that his relationship to nature and his environment endures until his death. They exist because he exists. The connection between the individual and nature is co-dependent, since the value of nature hinges on the individual’s perception, and the individual is reliant on nature as a source of sublimity. As William Blake once said, “where man is not, nature is barren.”
Jordak. The Pirate Beach. Digital image. Graphics by Jordak Porfolio. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015. .
Robinson, Mary. “The Haunted Beach.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch & Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th Ed. Vol. 2A. New York: Longman, 2012. 297-298. Print.
Wang, Orrin N. C.. “Ghost Theory”. Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 46, No. 2, Romanticism and the Legacies of Jacques Derrida: Part 1 of 2 (2007): 203-225. JSTOR. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.