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Gothic Art in Four Romantic Authors


Benjamin Disraeli remarked in 1833 that a key dereliction of modern belief–systems (such as Utilitarianism in political philosophy and Unitarianism in religion) was to omit the imagination. Why did he and other XIXth century authors turn for remedy in this particular regard to Gothic art? Four examples –drawn from Wordsworth (1798), Keats (1819), Stendhal (1830) and Disraeli (1845)– suggest that Gothic art was invoked by a few prominent Romantic authors, not to thrill us with haunted castles, but for a more complex purpose. Their goal was to bring a repressed religious imagination out in the open while also guarding against solipsism. All four authors saw in Gothic architecture a model of transcendent unity based on harmonizing, rather than suppressing, heterogeneous elements. At once naturalistic and mystical, Gothic cosmophilia (love of beauty) offered a welcome alternative both to an increasingly bleak secularism and to a narrow Evangelical moralism. Gothic cathedrals spoke of the soul’s vertical dimension against democratic leveling, while Gothic abbeys spoke of human equality before God. Gothic imagery thus allowed our authors to rekindle a distinctly religious imagination without forsaking key commitments of the modern project.

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Davenport, Anne A. 2008. “Gothic Art in Four Romantic Authors”. In Paroles, textes et images : Formes et pouvoirs de l'imaginaire. Article d’un cahier Figura. Available online: l’Observatoire de l’imaginaire contemporain. <>. Accessed on July 23, 2019. Source: (Chassay, Jean-François and Bertrand Gervais (ed.). 2008. Montréal: Figura, Centre de recherche sur le texte et l'imaginaire. coll. Figura, vol. 19:1).
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