The Tale of Terror eBook

Edith Birkhead
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 261 pages of information about The Tale of Terror.
realms of terror and survive the fierce struggle for existence.  Peacock, in Nightmare Abbey, paints the Shelley of 1812 in Scythrop, who devours tragedies and German romances, and is troubled with a “passion for reforming the world.”  “He slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves...  He had a certain portion of mechanical genius which his romantic projects tended to develop.  He constructed models of cells and recesses, sliding panels and secret passages, that would have baffled the skill of the Parisian police.”  His bearing was that of a romantic villain:  “He stalked about like the grand Inquisitor, and the servants flitted past him like familiars.”

Although Shelley outgrew his youthful taste for horrors, his early reading left traces on the imagery and diction of his poetry.  There is an unusual profusion in his vocabulary of such words as ghosts, shades, charnel, tomb, torture, agony, etc., and supernatural similes occur readily to his mind.  In Alastor he compares himself to

  “an inspired and desperate alchymist
  Staking his very life on some dark hope,”

and cries: 

  “O that the dream
  Of dark magician in his visioned cave
  Raking the cinders of a crucible
  For life and power, even when his feeble hand
  Shakes in its last decay, were the true law
  Of this so lonely world.”

In the Ode to the West Wind his memories of an older and finer kind of romance suggested the fantastic comparison of the dead leaves to

  “ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,”

and in Prometheus Unbound Panthea sees

  “unimaginable shapes
  Such as ghosts dream dwell in the lampless deeps.”

The poem Ginevra, which describes an enforced wedding and the death of the bride at the sight of her real lover, may well have been inspired by reading the romances of terror, where such events are an everyday occurrence.  The gruesome descriptions in The Revolt of Islam, the decay of the garden in The Sensitive Plant, the tortures of Prometheus, all show how Shelley strove to work on the instinctive emotion of fear.  In The Cenci he touches the profoundest depths of human passion, and shows his power of finding words, terrible in their simple grandeur, for a soul in agony.  In the tragedies of Shakespeare and of his followers—­Ford, Webster and Tourneur—­Shelley had heard the true language of anguish and despair.  The futile, frenzied shrieking of Matilda and her kind is forgotten in the passionate nobility or fearful calm of the speeches of Beatrice Cenci.


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The Tale of Terror from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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