Ghosts and spirits

Fantasmagoriana, 1812
Fantasmagoriana, 1812

The relentless rain of June 1816 kept the tenants of the Villa Diodati indoors. Byron, Polidori, Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley) and Claire Clairmont spent their time reading the recently published ‘Fantasmagoriana’, a French translation of German ghost stories compiled by Apel and Laun (and published in 5 volumes between 1810 and 1815). Their reading then inspired them to tell and write their own horror stories, including Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

It has become a commonplace of English literary history that this moment represents the birth of the gothic horror genre, even though there is plenty of evidence that similar ghost stories had already been popular for over two generations. Schubert as a young man was clearly attracted to a variety of such tales, from vengeful nuns haunting village chapels (Die Nonne, D 208, D 212) to Ossianic spirits hovering over remote bogs and heaths (Lodas Gespenst, D 150). It is also a mistake to read this attraction to the ‘gothic’ as a reaction to or rejection of the ‘classical’ tradition. The Greeks wrote about and believed in various types of ‘spirit’, and Schubert’s close friend Mayrhofer often evokes the sounds of spirits or ghosts in his ‘classical’ writing (e.g. the voices of the spirits that can be heard in ‘Fahrt zum Hades’, D 526; the frightening ‘ghostly sounds’ in ‘Der Schiffer’, D 536; the trees that rustle like ghosts in ‘Auf der Donau’, D 553).

Needless to say, there is a similar fusion of ‘romantic’ and ‘classical’ elements in the texts of Goethe that Schubert set to music. An old Germanic hero issues a greeting to future travellers (all figures of the ‘Enlightenment’) who pass by his old castle in ‘Geistes-Gruß’, D 142. A reflection on the physical phenomena surrounding a waterfall (gravity, movement, reflections, time etc) involves both a scientific and a theological approach to the nature of ‘spirits’ in ‘Gesang der Geister über den Wassern’, D 484, D 538, D 705 and D 714.

Spirits can range from Shinto-like spirits of the place (as in the old man of the mountain who appears as a spirit to the young hunter in Schiller’s ‘Der Alpenjäger’, D 588) to the spirits or souls of the recently deceased whose presence is intuited by those they have left behind (‘Abends unter der Linde’, D 235, D 237, and ‘Schwestergruß’, D 762). In a couple of the texts the word ‘Geist’ is clearly used to mean spirit as opposed to flesh, as in the Gospel of John (“It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” John 6:63). In Mayrhofer’s dualistic ‘An die Freunde’ D 654 the power of loving friends rises into the realm of the spirit, whereas the rotting corpse of the speaker sinks further into the physical earth. For poets of sensibility (such as Matthisson, e.g. ‘Naturgenuss’ D 188, D 442), the spirit that infuses all of nature allows us to escape this physical realm. Later romantic poets, such as Friedrich von Schlegel, link this idea of spirit within nature to the spirit that reveals itself to us in the experiences of love and of art. The lover and the poet open themselves up to this pervasive spiritual reality and are thereby released from more physical concerns:

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