In poetry, special effects are standard kit. From the moment the Green Knight removed his own head before an astonished Sir Gawain, the walls of reality dissolved forever. Poets realised they could pretty much do as they pleased (and still turn a sestina with a flourish). Not only did the potent imagery of the supernatural give their work an ethereal glow, it allowed them to cast themselves as alchemists and propagators of ancient myths. It underlined the unbroken lineage between them and the early mystics; the language of poetry and the rites of pagan ritual.
Poetry has a natural affinity with supernatural idioms: think of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ – it’s an incantation, a high style that poets deploy freely. And the art of poetry has always drawn on alchemy, conjuring the wondrous from the mundane. Prospero commanded the supernatural world to serve his own ends: “Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call’d to enact / My present fancies.” Poets continue to work the same magic, often calling upon players from other worlds to reveal the essential truths of this one.
For Elizabethan playwrights, the supernatural presented a heady brew of art, magic, science and religion, as rational minds applied themselves to inexplicable things. Faustus wonders if it is within the realms of his science “to make men […] live eternally / Or being dead raise them to life again”.
His curiosity leads to a rejection of God for magic: “Divinity Adieu / these metaphysics of magicians are heavenly.”
Ghosts and angels
In the centuries that followed, religion and the supernatural formed an uneasy alliance. Metaphysical poets like Henry Vaughan drew from both traditions to articulate the relationship between the spiritual and physical worlds and the sense of humanity being trapped between the two. He describes an epiphany in ‘The World’ in oddly modern terms: “I saw eternity the other night / Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.” It is a visionary moment of clarity but a transitory one – as if this magical realm, this glimpse of heaven and perfection is just beyond the reach of man.
Later, ghosts and angels became the predominant supernatural presence in poetry, and dreams the gateway to the supernatural world. In Leigh Hunt’s poem, Abou Ben Adhem wakes from his dream of peace to find “an angel writing in a book of gold” and from there negotiates his way into God’s favour (‘Abou Ben Adhem’). By the time of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, begun in 1798, Gothic melodrama has sunk its fangs into poetry. The poem’s opening, “’Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock” is pure Hammer Horror and the apparition Christabel sees is the archetypal ghost: “a damsel bright / Drest in a silken robe of white.” There is something horrific about the mysterious Geraldine: “her bosom and half her side / A sight to dream of not to tell”, the intimation that she may indeed be the living dead – a simultaneously beautiful and terrible vision of sex and death. Perhaps because of its B-movie plot and hackneyed mysticism, Wordsworth considered ‘Christabel’ too sensationalist to earn a place in Lyrical Ballads. And yet, in its dreamlike framework and lack of a resolution (Coleridge, characteristically, never finished the poem), ‘Christabel’ continues to beguile – and of course is replete with enough supernatural imagery to keep Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in long and gainful employment.
There is an implication in the work of the Romantics that the poetry itself is channelled from another dimension. In their séance-like writing sessions they see themselves as mediums as much as poets.
Echoes of the Gothic continue into Hardy’s ‘The Shadow of the Stone’. He finds himself in “the shifting shadows” of the garden with the sensation of someone standing behind him. He admits he dares not “turn my head to discover there was nothing in my belief.” He is reassured rather than repelled however by the idea of a spirit world; he feels warmth and company from ghosts of loved ones – and does not wish to dispel this illusion by looking round and finding the garden empty.
The supernatural allows an escape from the rational world. Poetry does not always have to explain itself. It can move more freely through time and nimbly from the real to the unreal; the living and the dead mingle easily.
When Hamlet receives information from his father’s ghost (the supernatural as plot device), they temporarily inhabit the same realm. This had a ghostly echo in reality when Daniel Day-Lewis fled the stage during a National Theatre production of the play, after finding himself face to face with an apparition of own father, Cecil Day-Lewis. Haunted by their unresolved relationship, Daniel Day-Lewis identified similar traits in them both – by turns reticent and attracted by danger. Some of this generational tension is pre-figured in lines from his father’s poem, ‘The Conflict’: “For where we used to build and love / Is no man’s land, and only ghosts can live /Between two fires.” W.H. Auden, you feel, would have had much to say about this incident, given his interest in ‘family ghosts’ – the potent, invisible effect of preceding generations on your psychological make-up.
In Louise Gluck’s brilliant and unsettling ‘Gretel in Darkness’, the mythic framework of the fairy tale underpins the psychological entrapment of the adult world. While Hansel denies the memory of the “witch’s cry” in “the moonlight through a sheet of sugar”, Gretel recalls how she ‘killed’ for him and is haunted still by the “spires of that gleaming kiln”. For her adult brother, the admission of a supernatural dimension is too much to bear, compounding the guilt and moral desperation of an incestuous relationship as “in our father’s hut we sleep”.
In a post-supernatural age
In a secular age, with the universe seemingly explained in the hula-hoop of a Large Hadron Collider, (the scientific successor to Vaughan’s “ring of pure endless light”?) we are more relaxed about solving religious and spiritual conundrums. The playful behaviour of ghosts is now the prevalent motif. “The spirits of chance and chaos” in Roddy Lumsden’s ‘My Limbo’: “stand in doorways: / quaint, foul allies, swivelling their ghost hips, /tugging at their gowns of transparency / and mischief.” Billy Collins meanwhile muses on the secret life of angels who “fly through God’s body and come out singing”. They are hip, and carefree. He singles out one “dancing alone in her stocking feet, a small jazz combo working in the background” (‘Questions About Angels’).
The poet as magician is the enduring image, the writer summoning forth apparitions from the world of the imagination to create enduring symbols of truth. Ultimately, the world of the imagination is deeper and richer than the spiritual world, which by definition is a human construct. In ‘Transgressing the Real’, Robert Duncan reveals the poet’s art: “under the cloak of his poem he retires / invisible”. And yet if we are wise, warns James Merrill in ‘Voices from the Other World’, we should not discount the supernatural entirely:
“Last night the teacup shattered in a rage. / Indeed, we have grown nonchalant/Towards the other world.”