The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature.
In other words, in a 'me' culture, when attention is more on wealth and competition than things sensitive and sublime, we need poetry. It restores to us a different set of truths and values, a nobler witness of the human condition.
Shelley was writing in response to the provocation of his friend Thomas Love Peacock who was pretty scathing about all things romantic - especially things Gothic. Over a century later, in a glowing 1947 introduction to a re-publication of Peacock's 'Nightmare Abbey' - a satire of the Gothic movement - JB Priestley wrote:
"We are apt to forget what a vast load of nonsense, of the Teutonic-Gothick-Rosicrucian cloak-and-skeleton kind, this movement carried with it, including whole circulating libraries of long-ignored bad fiction."
This was post-war London when Teutonic-Gothick wouldn't have been exactly 'flavour of the month'.
But the rise and fall of Gothic is an interesting barometer of how uneasy or comfortable society is with itself. Nearly 70 years later, Gothic, as Lisa Hopkins says, ' holds a darkly shadowed mirror up to its own age.' My 20-year-old son's take on Gothic is 'things weird and grimy' - the ugly, inconvenient truth - something mad in the attic - something rotten underground. Gothic seems drawn to the misty ruins, the blurring of boundaries, the twilight zone, the unknown and uncanny, the vulnerable in face of the despotic. It acts as an antidote to establishment certitude and complacency; it can herald a new order: 'Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!'
So it may be no surprise that the British Library exhibition, 'The Gothic Imagination', opened today - National Poetry Day. And next week there's an attached NWP workshop for teachers. It traces the Gothic through Shakespeare, Walpole, Radcliffe, Coleridge, Shelley (M&P), Bronte, Stoker, du Maurier, Faulkner, Peake, Stephen King ... right into our own lives:
Subterranean passages: daring to write what only you can imagine: If your writing is dead and buried, this workshop will revive it and help you to find your inner Gothic. By the light of a guttering candle, we will pass through a grisly collection of dismembered practical writing exercises, beyond the dead hand of Gove, towards the classroom of your dreams. Not for the faint-hearted!' 5 -8:30 p.m. 9.10.2014 at the British Library
Frankenstein and Dracula are already familiars in secondary classrooms, and the Romantics are now prescribed. Neil Gaiman's and Shaun Tan's books and images are popular Primary texts. So the Gothic is very much with us. Of course, writing dreams and nightmares can be dangerous territory, but variations of 'Go and open the door' - exercise 6 on Memories - may give writing teachers as well as their pupils another way of exploring symbol, metaphor and themselves, and of setting up conversations about the power of the imagination.
NWP outreach director