‘All Sad People Like Poetry’: Penny Dreadful, Frankenstein, and the Romantics

The_CreatureThis post contains spoilers for the series finale of Penny Dreadful (2014-2016).

This week, on re-watching several episodes of Penny Dreadful for research, I noticed something I had missed completely on my first, chronological viewing. Both the third episode of season one (‘Resurrection’) and the show’s final episode in season three (‘The Blessed Dark’) quote from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 5
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The poem (which covers ten more stanzas in Wordsworth’s published version) is a meditation on faith and mortality, and ponders the possibility of re-capturing a child’s wonder towards life, God, and nature.

Penny Dreadful is no stranger to poetry—especially the Romantic variety. Other Romantic recitations in the series have included John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (S01S05), William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (S02E02), and Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ (S03E01). John Clare, the working class poet whose name Frankenstein’s creature adopts in the second season, also makes several appearances (see ‘I Am!’ and ‘An Invite, to Eternity’).

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What interested me so much about this particular poem, though, is the dramatic difference between the two contexts in which it appears, and the relationship between two of the main characters it represents. The first time we hear it, the poem is narrated by a young Victor Frankenstein, as he walks through a field of daffodils (another poetic reference to Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’). This scene takes place just before Victor finds the maggot-infested corpse of his childhood dog, which itself is a foreshadowing of his mother’s death and the disastrous reappearance of his creation, Caliban, later in the episode.

Victor, scarred by the image of his dead dog, contrasts this picture of death with the one painted by Wordsworth and the other Romantics: ‘When the poets write of death,’ he concludes, ‘it’s invariably serene. I wonder if that’s what it is really. This death, this ending of things.’

‘Is it an ending though, Victor,’ his mother asks, ‘or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else?’

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Caliban’s appearance brings back these memories, and also their poetic references. Like the asylum attendant of his past life (see ‘A Blade of Grass’, S03E04), Caliban seems to have no use for poetry. Especially not the kind of poetry his creator reads:

From your penciled notations I learned that you favored Wordsworth and the old Romantics. No wonder you fled from me. I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age. Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? (‘Resurrection’, S01E03)

Caliban’s attitude towards these poets makes it all the more striking that the second time Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’ appears in Penny Dreadful, it is recited by Caliban himself, as he kneels at the grave of the series protagonist, Vanessa Ives. This time, the following excerpt is also part of the recitation:

But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

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Of course, though Caliban initially rejects the Romantics as his spiritual leaders, he is repeatedly shown to be a devoted poetry reader throughout the series, and eventually even takes the name John Clare. He explains the rationale behind this decision to Vanessa in a moving scene partway through season two, which includes a shared recitation of ‘I Am!’ (see ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, S02E05):

‘I’ve always been moved by John Clare’s story,’ Caliban says. ‘By all accounts, he was only 5 feet tall, so considered freakish. Perhaps due to this, he felt a singular affinity with the outcasts and the unloved. The ugly animals. The broken things.’ Through John Clare’s unusual perspective on Romantic themes and ideals, Caliban is able to grapple with them as well—though we are never given an indication that Caliban’s opinions about Romantic naivety and metaphysical yearning have changed.

Does Caliban change his mind about the Romantics in the final episode? Whatever the reason for Caliban’s re-appropriation of Romantic poetry in ‘The Blessed Dark’, it adds a new layer of meaning to the conversation Victor and his mother have in ‘Resurrection’. In the season finale, kneeling by Vanessa’s grave after burying his own son, Caliban seems to be asking precisely the same questions as Victor: is death an ending, or merely a movement? A gesture toward something else? As his own existence demonstrates, the answer is hardly straightforward.

Clare’s poem ‘I Am’, from ‘Beneath the Vaulted Sky’, ends as follows:

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

‘I wonder if he ever found it, his silent place with God’, Vanessa wonders. ‘The poem tells me that he did’, replies Caliban, ‘as you will one day’. The troubling epilogue to that statement, of course, is that Vanessa only finds her peace in the grave (as the poem itself implies). John Clare himself spent the last two decades of his life in an asylum. One can only hope that Caliban found a less tragic and more immediate solace.

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CfP: Penny Dreadful, Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television

2000x2667_nmc5h5It’s been less than a year since Penny Dreadful ended dramatically in its third season, but this week brings the announcement of a collection of academic essays dedicated to the show. Edited by Manchester Metropolitan University‘s Jon Greenaway and Stephanie Reid, the collection looks to explore the show’s Gothic and Victorian heritage, as well as its contemporary contexts.

If you’re working on Penny Dreadful, do consider submitting an abstract to Penny Dreadful: Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television. The deadline is 15 May. Click here to download a Word version of the CfP. Text version follows:


Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) has become one of the most critically well-regarded shows of the post-millennial Gothic television revival, drawing explicitly on classic tropes, texts and characters throughout its three-season run. However, despite the show’s critical success and cult following, a substantive academic examination of the show has yet to be undertaken.

This edited collection seeks to address the current lack within Gothic studies scholarship, and situate Penny Dreadful as a key contemporary Gothic television text. This collection will seek to trace the link between the continued expansion of Gothic television, alongside the popular engagement with Neo-Victorianism. In addition, the collection seeks to examine notions around the aesthetic importance of contemporary Gothic that become particularly prominent against the narrative re-imaginings that occur within Penny Dreadful. This collection explores exactly where Gothic resides within this reflexive, hybridized and intertextual work; in the bodies, the stories, the history, the styling, or somewhere else entirely?

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Possible contributions could include, but are no means limited to the following:

  • Gothic adaptation and/or appropriation?
  • Pastiche and parody and Gothic aesthetics
  • ‘Global Gothic’ in the sense of its commercialisation
  • Neo-Victorianism (styling, politics, economics); as well as explorations of the impact of ‘historicizing’ Gothic
  • Representation of gender within the text, specifically female monstrosity
  • The Post/Colonial context, as well racialized characterisation and presentation
  • The reworking/restyling of monsters in contemporary Gothic
  • Consideration of a ‘Romance’ aesthetic and how this alters conceptions of ‘Gothic’ texts and the influence of ‘romantic’ themes/styles in contemporary Gothic

What the proposal should include:

An extended abstract of 500 words (for a 6,000-word chapter) including a proposed chapter title, a clear theoretical approach and reference to some relevant sources.

Please also provide your contact information, institutional affiliation, and a short biography.

Abstracts should be sent as a word document attachment to j.greenaway@mmu.ac.uk or stephanie.m.reid@stu.mmu.ac.uk by no later than May 15th 2017 with the subject line, “Penny Dreadful Abstract Submission.”

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Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).