‘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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