Dark Romanticism: The Ultimate Contradiction
Once upon a midnight dreary, while
I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
Only this and nothing more."
From "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
The grotesque, the gloomy,
the morbid, the fantastic-the American Dark Romantics
embraced all of these illogical elements and shaped
them into perhaps the most popular sub-genre of
American literature. While the Romantics believed
reality to be pale and empty, the Dark Romantics
thought quite the opposite. Life to the Dark Romantics
was colorful, capricious, and contradictory. Unlike
the Romantics, the Dark Romantics acknowledged
the evil of man and the horror of evil. Ralph
Waldo Emerson had ignored the depravity of man,
sin and Calvinist predestination, and the Dark
Romantics stood to remind the world of the existence
of evil. Like the Romantics and Transcendentalists,
however, the Dark Romantics valued intuition and
emotion over logic and reason and saw symbols,
spiritual truths, and signs in nature and everyday
The key figures of Dark Romanticism included Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the psychological thriller and an American pop-culture icon, wrote such popular works as "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Cask of Amontillado." His mystery stories, "The Purloined Letter" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" paved the way for the modern detective story, and inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes and Fyodor Dostoevsky to examine the criminal mind in Crime and Punishment (1866).
Although Herman Melville was not a popular Dark Romantic, he contributed to Romanticism and the development of the Romantic hero with Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847). Similar works brought him fame and prosperity. However, the publication of Moby Dick in 1851 left many of his readers confused. The tale of the white whale is Melville's greatest work, in which audiences at the time failed to grasp it's complexity and symbolism. Now considered a modern classic, Moby Dick is enjoyed as one of the greatest American novels written. Moby Dick is a tale of good vs. evil, and man vs. nature. As evil prevails in the story, the novel is considered a Dark Romantic work.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote
such popular fiction as The Scarlet Letter
(1850) and The House of Seven Gables (1851).
The Scarlet Letter was a purely Romantic work
with elements of Gothic romance. Its gloomy tone,
color imagery, supernatural allusions, use of
symbols in nature and in civilization, and nonconformist
themes certainly made The Scarlet Letter an important
contribution to Dark Romanticism. Two of Hawthorne's
short stories-"Young Goodman Brown"
and "The Minister's Black Veil"-are
both consistent with the Dark Romantic tradition.
In both tales, Hawthorne digs deep into the human
mind and examines sin and evil.