A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Six Poems by E.A. Robinson and “The Ghostly Kiss” by Lafcadio Hearn

The latest installment in the series of posts exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Today, the penultimate stop in the tour through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

Six Poems by Edgar Arlington Robinson

The sextet of selected Robinson texts here appropriately is headed by the much-anthologized piece “Luke Havergal.” This gloomy and atmospheric work features a ghostly speaker from “Out of the grave” who encourages the grieving Luke to reunite with his lost love in death by committing suicide. Next, “Lisette and Eileen” hints at secrets and scandals, lingering resentment and debilitating guilt, as the speaker Lisette reproaches the addressee Eileen for ruining a relationship with a now-deceased male figure (“Where might I be with him to-day, / Could he have known before he heard? / But no–your silence had its way, / Without a weapon or a word.”). “The Dark House” sports a femme-fatale-like “Demon,” and concerns a living state of damnation and imprisonment that can only be escaped upon death. In “The Mill,” a haunting, resonant poem of quiet desperation, a miller (distraught over the obsolescence of his profession due to industrialization) hangs himself from a beam inside the titular structure; discovering his corpse, his wife soon follows suit and erases all trace of her existence by throwing herself into the black waters of the millpond. “Souvenir” eerily recalls a “vanished house” from the speaker’s youth, where he overhead from without “the voice / Of one whose occupation was to die.” Finally, “Why He Was There,” presents a ghost (the “cadaverous” figure of a deceased friend found sitting in his old room) who claims in the final lines that the speaker’s very presence there has given impetus to the spiritual visitation: “‘I was not here until you came; And I shall not be here when you are gone.'”

Edgar Arlington Robinson falls squarely within the tradition of American Gothic literature. His compressed, melancholic, and often morbidly-themed poems prove reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Also, long before Stephen King carved out Castle Rock, Robinson created a fictional Maine community (“Tilbury Town”) rife with intrigue and populated by haunted and unworldly figures. The six poems included here are highly representative not only of Robinson’s work but also of a distinctly Gothic sensibility.

 

“The Ghostly Kiss” by Lafcadio Hearn

Hearn’s 1880 newspaper sketch reads like a surreal prose-poem. As if in the grip of some fever dream, the narrator speaks of finding himself in an uncanny theater with an audience uniformly dressed in white (“I was the only person in all that vast assembly clad in black”) and actors who emit “thin sounds like whispers from another world–a world of ghosts!” The narrator is captivated by a “strangely familiar” female figure sitting beside him, and is overwhelmed by a “mad impulse” to kiss her. When the narrator surrenders to this desire, the woman (with “a voice such as we hear when dead loves visit us in dreams”) tells him: “Thou hast kissed me: the compact is sealed forever.” This announcement promptly alerts the narrator to the grim reality of the surrounding scene:

And raising my eyes once more I saw that all the seats were graves and all the white dresses shrouds. Above me a light still shone in the blue roof, but only the light of a white moon in the eternal azure of heaven. White tombs stretched away in weird file to the verge of the horizon; –where it seemed to me that I beheld a play, I saw only a lofty mausoleum; –and I knew that the perfume of the night was but the breath of flowers dying upon the tombs!

In his editorial headnote to the piece, Charles Crow points out that Hearn temporarily resided in New Orleans, “surely the most Gothic of American cities.” The above-ground cemetery setting here certainly fits with a Crescent City locale, but Crow then strains in the attempt at contextualization when he writes that  “it might be remembered that New Orleans was regularly visited by epidemics in the post-Civil War period.” Nevertheless, “The Ghostly Kiss” is an effective Gothic narrative, whose theater conceit recalls Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm,” and whose theme of mournful remembrance of (unhealthy fixation on?) a lost love aligns with much of Poe’s work.

 

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