Sunday 20 August 2017

Early treatment of the supernatural and weird, focusing specifically on Hoffman's "The Sandman" and Coleridge's “The Ancient Mariner"

While much of my work is surrealistic, irreal or "bizarro" in nature, even my most straightforwardly realist work is informed by my lifelong love of genre fiction, whether that be the multiverse of super-beings in Marvel Comics or twist-in-the-tale stories from The Twilight Zone or 50s EC Comics.  This was later further informed and developed by my love of the New Wave of SF (Ballard, Aldiss, PKD, Disch et al) and early weird literary fiction or Absurdist works such as Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gogol's The Nose and Ionesco's Rhinoceros.  Yet, I am ashamed to say, despite my love of such work and despite my love of Romantic poetry, with the exception of Poe and Lovecraft, my knowledge of early "weird" fiction is frankly woeful.  As such, I thought it might be worthwhile to go back to the Romantic roots of that early work and to focus on two works in particular, Hoffman's "The Sandman" and Coleridge's “The Ancient Mariner."

Many Romantic writers inherited themes and styles that had once been popular in the genre known as romance, common features of which were medieval and exotic settings, "doubling" of characters, fantastic/supernatural creatures and events, long quests, and an idealised love between idealised characters, and, this romance narrative style was also a common feature of the Gothic novel. At first glance there are few similarities between "The Sandman", a prose short-story originally written in German, and The Ancient Mariner, a narrative poem written in English, apart from their times of writing, a focus on the strange or "uncanny", and the fact that both pieces use a "frame" as a narrative device. However, it can be seen that both "The Sandman" and The Ancient Mariner share several romance characteristics despite their different forms. For example, they both make use of certain narrative devices (romance convention and Gothic-style imagery, framing, allegory, unreliable (because of madness, dream or delusion) points of view), and they both share common themes of powerlessness and alienation.

"The Sandman", whilst contemporary, is mostly set in a significantly nameless University (that it is away from "home" is enough - the Italian lecturer's and the Piedmontese barometer-salesman's names hinting at "foreign-ness"), but it also features such Gothic/romance mainstays as "distant mountains" (143), a "high steeple...casting its gigantic shadow..." (143), and secret "alchemical experiments" (119). Similarly, The Ancient Mariner involves a ship's long journey "to the cold country towards the South Pole....(then) to the great Pacific ocean" (167). (The similarities of both works (secret alchemical experiments, foreign Universities, simulacra of living beings, quests through the Poles etc) with Frankenstein, are clear). Also, it is worth noting that in both works the main character suffers when away, and tends to be healed at home.

Similarly, they both feature fantastic, supernatural creatures, Hoffman's story the eponymous Sandman (who is "wicked" and "throws a handful of sand into (children's) eyes so that they start out bleeding from their heads" so that he can feed his children who "have crooked beaks like owls" (111)), and Coppelius, who whilst not "supernatural" is certainly described as being inhuman - "his whole figure was coarse and repulsive", and he has "coarse brown hairy fists" (114) with which he delights in touching the children's food with so that they will not eat it. Similarly, Olympia is an unnatural man-made (the only things Nathaniel relates to being, that sings and dances yet has no soul. The Ancient Mariner on the other hand contains personifications of Death ("his bones were black with many a crack, all black and bare" (191-182), Life-in-Death (a kind of spiritual death) ("her skin is as white as leprosy, and she is far liker death than he" (188-189), as well as visions of the crewmen dying then rising in death (333), of spirits guiding the ship (381-385), "two voices in the air" (402), etc.

The other romance conventions used by Hoffman (but ignored by Coleridge as he seemed to be more concerned by the spiritual import of the poem) is the use of doubling and idealised love. Coppelius and Coppola are described by the narrator as doubles; they could in fact even be the same man. But there is also the identification of the Sandman figure with Coppelius, the doubling of Nathaniel and Olympia (there are strong parallels between Nathaniel's father and Coppelius with regard to Nathaniel, and Spalanzani and Coppola with regard to Olympia - even down to both of the "child" characters having their limbs and organs "screwed off" or removed).

Similarly, the concept of ideal love is explored in Nathaniel's all-consuming wooing of Olympia which fulfils the romantic stereotype of the lover perfectly (although Hoffman seems to say that such love is ultimately egocentric and narcissistic, as Nathaniel's later disinterest and dismissal of Clara because she refuses to listen to his continuous outpourings of love seems to prove. Indeed, even the vocabulary of the pieces are highly Gothic and romantic At random, in The Ancient Mariner you can find words like "dismal" (54), "plague" (78), "slimy" (120 and 121), "charnel" (184), and eldritch" (233), while "The Sandman" contains words like "uneasy", "horrible", "disturbing", and phrases like "dark forebodings", "threatening fate" and "laughing like a madman" in the first page alone (109).

However, as well as these genre (or sub-genre) similarities, there are other similarities, namely that they can both be read as allegories which are concerned with alienation, and which express this horror and anxiety through the use of external "supernatural" occurrences. "The Sandman's" Nathaniel is alienated from his home and his family, studying at University even though he wants to "return to his native town forever" (129). He is described as having been alienated from his father (in that he had a secret alchemical life (itself mysterious and alien to him) with Coppelius), and he later finds himself alienated from both Clara and Lothaire after she tells him to burn one of his poems (128). Indeed, he only finds "love" with Olympia, an automaton that is in reality nothing but a mirror for his own egocentric self-obsession. He is alienated not only from society (at Spalanzani's party "quiet, scarcely suppressed laughter....arose among the young people (and) was manifestly directed towards Olympia" (135)) but from reality, which the frequent references to madmen, lunatics and madhouses reinforces.

Similarly, the Ancient Mariner is similarly alienated, first from his crewmates ("instead of the cross the albatross/ About my neck was hung" (137-138) and "each turned his face....and cursed me with his ee" (206-207)), then from Nature and the Natural Order, and then perhaps even from Death ("And yet I could not die" (254)) and perhaps also Life itself, as well. Thus the alienation expressed in the poem is more spiritual, perhaps even metaphysical than the more psychological alienation and anomie of Hoffman's Nathaniel, yet it is a common theme to both, in that the mariner mentions the loneliness (hinting at spirituality by hinting at the absence of God (630-634), and says "...'Tis sweeter far to me/ To walk together to the kirk/ With a goodly company", an idea of loneliness mirrored by Nathaniel's anomie at University and at home as a child. Similarly, Nathaniel declares it impossible "to do anything....according to our own independent will...for the principle does not proceed from within ourselves, but is the effect of a higher principle without" (125-126), an idea certainly mirrored by the ancient mariner who is literally guided, uncontrollably by an external force.

Another similarity between the two text's treatment of the supernatural is that they are both "framed", and that in both pieces the main narrative point of view is unreliable, as much is made of madness, dreams and delirium (another preoccupation of the Romantic artist), and so they could both be read as tales of lunatics, their insanity being the only real "story". The mariner is described as early as the fourth stanza as a "grey-beard loon", the spirit that follows the ship from "the land of mist and snow" is only given existence in "dreams" (127), and the voices of the two spirits are heard while, dehydrated, he lies in a "trance" (434) and a "swound" (297). Similarly, Nathaniel's childhood vision of Coppelius screwing "off my hands and feet" (115) happens before he "regained his senses" (115) after "delirium and fever" (116) which Clara and Lothaire also recognise - "we ourselves kindle the spirit, which we in our strange delusion believe to be speaking to us." (120) Thus it could be argued that both works are not objective tales of the supernatural, but the hallucinations and fancies of disturbed people told from their point of view, although this reading does have problems with the automaton Olympia - if she is read as a metaphor for a submissive "doll-like" woman, then why should Splanzani be expelled from the University? (Although it could be argued that he and Coppola had assaulted her).

Is it coincidence then that both works, despite their different forms and languages of composition, should share the same subject (the supernatural, the uncanny), the same theme (alienation, lack of control), the same kinds of gothic imagery, and the same mode of writing (allegory)? The answer can perhaps be seen in that the Europe of the early nineteenth century was fragmented, warring, and many countries were on the brink of revolution (both industrial and social), and the ruling powers were dealing with this upsurge of revolutionary sentiment (and those who wrote supporting it) brutally and intolerantly. Also, science was finally emerging from alchemy to explain many aspects of the world and thus alter lives. In addition, the Germany in which Hoffman lived was politically fragmented, and many nationalists were trying to rediscover (or invent) a common unifying culture. In this atmosphere it is hardly surprising that both writers should resort to allegory to "disguise" their works as "tales of the uncanny” or that they should seek to describe the kind of alienation, powerlessness and sense of paranoia and anxiety that many people felt. In both stories too, there is a sense of irrationality - there is little cause or effect. Why does the mariner kill the albatross? What is his final fate - is he cursed to tell his story, is he mad, or is he simply accosting a passerby? How does Coppolla find Nathaniel in his second lodgings? Why does Coppelius return to the town at the end of the story? Things just happen because they do and they will - it is futile looking for reasons, a feeling many victimised people in such societies (especially perhaps intellectuals and writers) would recognise.

This mood is also emphasized by the fact that both works have down-beat, inconclusive endings, in that Nathaniel dies and the mariner could be cursed to tell his story forever - " an uncertain hour....the hour comes and makes me tell my ghastly aventure" (617-618).

In common with many Romantic works Nature plays an important part in both pieces, as the supernatural is used in the truest sense of the term - the more than natural, the unnatural; and at times the absence of Nature and natural things are important. In The Ancient Mariner many of the "supernatural" occurrences are preceded by a breakdown in the Natural Order (again echoing the ides of revolution). The spirit ship that sails without wind, and several times the sea is described as "burning" (126, 163, 262), and, like a malevolent person revelling in his power the wind and rain seem to possess sentient action. The "sky and ocean smote" his ship (584), the sea is gendered as masculine ("His great bright eye most silently/ Up to the moon is cast" (421-422), and one of the spirits even asks "What is the ocean doing?" (418).

Similarly, in "The Sandman", Clara's eyes are compared to "a lake by Ruysdael, in which the pure azure of a cloudless sky, the wood and the flowery field....are reflected." (124), whereas insane Nathaniel is described as having "a perception in art and science" (man-made subjects) that is "clear and strong" (125), the only references to Nature in his personality being "dark clouds, which no friendly sunbeam can penetrate." (109). Again, Nature is personified, and associated with positive qualities.

Thus, beyond a few superficial differences between the two pieces' treatment of the supernatural, it can be seen that they both make use of certain narrative devices (romance convention and Gothic-style imagery, framing, allegory, unreliable (because of madness, dream or delusion) points of view), and they both share common themes of powerlessness and alienation, themes which were more likely than not inspired by the uncertain times in which they lived.  In addition, having looked at these early examples of weird and supernatural fiction, it is pretty clear to see how established some of these tropes were, so that a clear lineage can be determined from them through the likes of Blackwood, Poe and Lovecraft, through Bloch and Campbell to the likes of Barker and King.  While I admit I generally prefer the more recent fiction, I can still admire a decent spooky tale from the 19th Century, particularly on a frosty November night.....


Allen, G. (1996) "Romantic Verse Narrative" in Bygrave, S. (ed) (1996) Romantic Writings (Approaching Literature), Routledge in association with the Open University, London.

Allen, G. (1996) "Romantic Allegory" in Bygrave, S. (ed) (1996) Romantic Writings (Approaching Literature), Routledge in association with the Open University, London.

Allen, R. (1996) "Reading Kleist and Hoffman" in Bygrave, S. (ed) (1996) Romantic Writings (Approaching Literature), Routledge in association with the Open University, London.

Freud, S. (1955) "The Uncanny" in Bygrave, S. (ed) (1996) Romantic Writings (Approaching Literature), Routledge in association with the Open University, London.

Hoffman, E.T.A. (1951) "The Sandman" in (1996) Klein and Hoffman Texts, A210: Supplementary Material, The Open University, London.

Coleridge, S.T. (1798) "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" in Wu, D. (ed) (1994) Romanticism: An Anthology, Blackwell, Oxford.

Kelly, G. (1989) English Fiction of the Romantic Period 1789-1830 (Longman Literature In English Series), Longman, London.

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