All Sad People Like Poetry: Penny Dreadful & the Romantics
Updated: Nov 6
The television series Penny Dreadful ( which was produced in a cooperative effort by Showtime and Sky Atlantic between 2014-2016) is a show that is deeply entrenched in the Gothic genre of fiction due to its adaptation of various iconic characters associated with that genre. When focussing mainly on its incorporation of said characters it could be considered (among other things) an adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while also referencing various other works by name or by similarity of themes and tropes. While its merits as an adaptation have been previously discussed by various critics and academics, most notably by Benjamin Poore in his The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic and by Alison Lee and Frederick D. King in Text, to Myth, to Meme: Penny Dreadful and Adaptation, This essay endeavours to discuss a different but related angle.
In this essay, we will examine the way in which Penny Dreadful makes use of Romantic poetry. We will focus on the context in which several Romantic poems are cited, how this context differs from the original and how it might alter the interpretation of the cited verses from their initial intention. Finally, we will briefly regard the show’s evaluation and adaptation of the Romantic poets in general, what their appearance can tell us about their current reception.
While it is fair to argue that Romantic poets are represented and referenced by Penny Dreadful in far more ways than mere literal citation, we choose to limit our examination to instances of literal citation only, of which we will only discuss the most clear and prominent examples. As such, we will discuss the following appearances of Romantic poetry: the recitation of the last lines from John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in season one episode five (Closer Than Sisters), the recitation of the ninth line from the fifty-third Stanza from P.B. Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ first referenced in Season one episode six (What Death Can Join Together) and reiterated in episode seven of the same season (Possession), the partial recitation of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in the second episode of the second season (Verbis Diablo), the recitation of John Clare’s ‘I Am’ in the fifth episode of the second season (Above the Vaulted Sky) and finally, the recitation of an excerpt of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ (from ‘Recollections of Early Childhood’) in the final episode of Season three (The Blessed Dark).
1. Oh, Darkling, Listen
1.1. Context of citation
After our protagonist Vanessa Ives is caught having intercourse with Mina Murray’s Fiancé, a previously close friendship between Vanessa’s family and the Murrays is broken and Vanessa suffers a severe fit and develops issues with mental illness that persist a long time (it is suggested that this is a case of demonic possession triggered by a psychosexual trauma). Vanessa’s fits increase to such extremities that she is brought to an asylum. After being physically and mentally broken both by her condition and by the inhuman therapy of the asylum, she is sent home. After being visited by Mina’s brother (who is on the brink of joining his father Malcolm in his expedition to the unexplored parts of the African Continent) and who is shocked by her condition, Vanessa is visited by a spectre taking the guise of Sir Malcolm.
The spectre is quickly identified by Vanessa as “Serpent. Enchanter, Deceiver, Prince of Darkness, Devil of the Pit”. The spectre, however, ignores her defiance and continues thusly: “So, the Keats, Four lines from Ode to a Nightingale have always struck a chord with me. Keats was dying when he wrote them, and he knew he was dying, which adds to the piquancy, don't you think? Would you like to hear them?” After which Vanessa asks if she has a choice. To which the spectre replies that she had always had a choice. Vanessa denies this. After a short conversion it becomes clear that Vanessa cannot deny nor ignore her attraction to the darkness, the spectre finally gives us the following citation: "Darkling, I listen and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme. To take into the air my quiet breath.” To which Vanessa replies: “So the Darkness Spoke?” and when the spectre confirms this by saying: “yes, but you listened.” Vanessa’s seduction to Darkness is completed, and she follows to passionately kiss the spectre and intercourse ensues.
1.2. Keats, Death and the Devil
The episode draws on the ambiguous themes of the poem, while significantly darkening its interpretation. While the seduction of Death is quite explicitly illustrated by the poem albeit from a desire to be relieved of pain (“ I have been half in love with easeful Death/ Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme/To take into the air my quiet breath/Now more than ever seems it rich to die/To cease upon the midnight with no pain) the show uses the poem to signify the seduction by Evil (this is evident from Vanessa’s question following the citation of the poem). And while in the poem the vision of the Nightingale is implied to be the cause of sleep, medication or a combination of the two (as seen in the last two lines of the poem) the ‘vision’ here becomes a clear manifestation of Evil imposed on a broken but sober mind. By selecting the aforementioned lines of the poem and leaving out the more lush and ornate description, the four lines become an illustration of the seducing power of death and darkness, separating them from their original context which serves more to indicate the seducing power of poetry over the tragedy and the finitude of life. However, it must be said that the context of the Devil reciting these lines does place the aforementioned darker interpretation within a frame of corruption (One of the Devil’s nicknames is after all ‘The Lord of Lies’). As Vanessa’s mind and body are being corrupted by Evil, the recontextualisation of the aforementioned lines also illustrates the way in which Evil corrupts the Arts to fit its message rather than its original intended context.
2. No More Let life Divide
2.1. Context of Citation
Before the episodes in which Shelley is cited (Season one episode six (What Death Can Join Together) and reiterated in episode seven of the same season (Possession)) It is revealed to us that Doctor Victor Frankenstein once studied Romantic poetry in his youth and is still an avid admirer of the Romantics (We will discuss the attraction of several characters to the Romantics in the conclusion of this essay). Thus this provides the context for his knowledge of Romantic poetry. As Victor discusses life’s many challenges (such as love and sin) with his mentor Professor Van Helsing, Van Helsing reminds Victor that “Our work cannot control us, we must control it.” This prompts Victor to discuss his guilt over the creation of his monster (not explicitly, Van Helsing remains unaware of the existence of the monster, the audience is aware) in terms such as “A sin that is everlasting. One that you have made immortal,” he continues by saying: "There is a line from Shelley that haunts me.
A single line from Adonais. I cannot get it out of my head. No more let Life divide what Death can join together.” The exact words are repeated by Vanessa in the following episode (It is implied that her possession allows her to know about this private conversation which was known only to Frankenstein and Van Helsing).
2.2 What Death Can Join Together While Adonaïs was originally written to commemorate and mourn the fallen John Keats, the reading of the line has a particularly different connotation when used in the show. In the poem, the line itself (as mentioned, the ninth line in the fifty-third stanza) follows these verses: “The soft sky smiles/ the low wind whispers near/ 'Tis Adonais calls! oh, hasten thither,” The line is thus uttered to underline the call from Adonais to the speaker to join him in the afterlife. While it is said in grief, the prospect of seeing Adonais again in the hereafter is implied to be a hopeful thought. In the show, however, the line get a far grimmer connotation. When it is uttered by Frankenstein as something that haunts him, the line is seemingly referencing the literal joining together through death (of body parts) that led to the creation of the monster and might lead to the creation of the immortal mate which Caliban (the monster) urges Frankenstein to create for him.
Thus it is here repurposed to be a token of how Frankenstein is haunted by his creation(s) and by his disastrous obsession to overcome death. When the citation (combined with an exact reproduction of Frankenstein’s phrasing) is repeated by the possessed Vanessa, the quotation’s bearing is multiple. Due to Vanessa’s exact repetition of Frankenstein’s words, her inhumanity is further stressed, especially by her introducing the quotation by saying: “Who can tell about such things? Such hidden things. Such secrets we all have, don't we, Doctor?” This allusion to forbidden knowledge provides a further indication of her demonic possession. In the further context of Vanessa’s possession, the citation also foreshadows her desire to be killed at the end of the episode. Furthermore, it also references Vanessa’s final finding of peace through dying at the end of season three, while simultaneously referencing the lines’ original connotation (of a desire to join loved ones in the hereafter).
3. A Grain of Sand
3.1. Context of Citation
Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ is recited in episode two of season two (Verbis Diablo) in a discussion between Vanessa Ives and Caliban (Frankenstein’s creation). The discussion in general highlights the difference between the Catholic Vanessa and the Atheistic Caliban. In the conversation, Caliban mentioned how after reading Wordsworth, the parables of the Bible seemed superfluous. When Vanessa asks: “But no exaltation in life beyond this?” Caliban replies with: “To see a world in a grain of sand /And a heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand /And eternity in an hour” to this Vanessa replies: “With respect to Blake I see no wild flowers here. Only pain and suffering.” To which Caliban retorts that she needs to look closer.
3.2. Eternity in an Hour
While the lines in the poem originally work to show the innocence of Nature in contrast to the wickedness of the (man-made) world, the lines do somewhat receive a contrasting interpretation here. When Vanessa (the believer, confer Blake) objects to the recitation of the poem on account of the somewhat contrasting location in which their conversation is being held (a den of Cholera beneath the city of London), the unbeliever (Caliban) insists that ‘wild flowers’ could be found in the horror of disease and poverty when one looks close enough. As such, lines in a (religious/ mystical) poem that originally seem to laud the beauty of creation in contrast to the ugliness of human cruelty are here used to underline an atheistic view of a world with plenty of horror yet no absence of beauty.
4. Above the Vaulted Sky
4.1. Context of Citation
Similarly to the previous instance of citation, John Clare’s poem is cited during a conversation between Vanessa and Caliban. As Caliban calls himself John Clare, Vanessa and Caliban begin a discussion about the poet John Clare and about being an outcast. When he cites: I am Yet what I am none care or knows/ My friends forsake me/ Like a memory lost/ I am the self-consumer of my woes/ They rise and vanish/ In oblivious host /Like shadows In love's frenzied stifled throes And yet I am, and live - Like vapours tossed” – Vanessa continuses: “Vapours tossed I long for scenes/ Where man hath never trod/ A place where woman /Never smiled or wept /There to abide with my Creator, God And sleep as I in childhood /Sweetly slept/ Untroubling and untroubled/ Where I lie / The grass below /Above the vaulted sky.” Vanessa ends the discussion of Clare by wondering aloud if the poet ever found his peace, to which Caliban replies that he did, and she will as well.
4.2. Untroubling and Untroubled
Of all the poetic references in Penny Dreadful, this is the only poem which receives a full citation. Arguably, it is also one of the only poems to which the context of the show is complementary rather than slightly altering or contradictory. As explicitly stated, Caliban has always felt a strong connection to the poet John Clare who (according to him) has felt a kinship to the outcasts due to his size. As such, Caliban finds himself in very much the same melancholic state as the poem expresses. One notable difference is that of his unbelief and the poem’s religious ending. However, Vanessa, by being a troubled believer, longing for peace and reinforcement of her faith stands even closer to John Clare. As such, the mutual recitation indicates their kinship. Furthermore, Vanessa’s question about Clare finding peace and Caliban’s reply ads a foreshadowing dimension to the ending of the poem, as through dying, it can be argued that Vanessa would finally find the peace and reunification with her God she longed for.
5. The Glory and The Dream
5.1. Context of Citation
As the final episode of Penny Dreadful ends and we are shown Vanessa’s burial. Caliban recites the following lines from William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality’ ( from Recollections of Early Childhood’): “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight/ To me did seem Apparell’d in celestial light/The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;— Turn wheresoe'er I may/ By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more/ But there’s a tree, of many, one/ A single field which I have look’d upon/ Both of them speak of something that is gone/The pansy at my feet / Doth the same tale repeat/ Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”
5.2. Where is it now?
Where the poem mostly focusses on the changes time has brought to the landscapes remembered from childhood, the recited lines here have a far more melancholic sound. As death has taken both Vanessa’s and Caliban’s child’s life, and the beauty, joy and friendship that those people brought to Caliban has now faded from this earth, the poem here symbolizes the grim tone on which the show ends, as the friendships and characters we were introduced to are now a thing of the past.
More than merely citing poetry and thus connoting, underlining certain scenes of the show, the adoration of the Romantics also form an intrinsic part of the characterisation of several main characters, most notably, Vanessa Ives, Victor Frankenstein and Caliban. However, while these characters’ love of poetry has clearly helped in their personal development. Penny Dreadful almost exclusively links Romantic poetry to instances of melancholy and despair. As we have seen, almost all the poems cited in the show have death as one of their themes. The exceptions being the citation from Blake and the recitation of Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ during the first episode of the final season (The Day Tennyson Died.) The show even explicitly references this darker view of poetry when during the second of the aforementioned conversations between Vanessa and Caliban, Vanessa jokes: “All sad people like poetry. Happy people like songs.” Even though the elevating power of Romantic poetry has been referred to on several occasions in the show, most uses of Romantic poetry have a gothic filter, either inherently referring to subjects such as death, despair and evil, or receiving such a connotation through the context in which they are being used. We can thus conclude that the television series Penny Dreadful uses its Romantic poetry as an affirmation, reinforcement of its gothic themes and characters rather than providing a more representative sample of Romantic poetry, which besides the gothic also includes verses of exaltation, celebration or more complex and varied themes than those fitting within the gothic sentiment and setting.
Keats, J. Ode to A Nightingale. Poetry Foundation. Accessed on 5 May via https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44479/ode-to-a-nightingale
Lee, A. & King, F. D. “ From Text, to Myth, to Meme: Penny Dreadful and Adaptation », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens. Autumn 2016 , Accessed 5 May 2018 via http://journals.openedition.org/cve/2343 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2343
Poore, B. 'The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic' Victoriographies – A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Writing. 2016. 1790-1914, vol 6, no. 1.
 Poore, B. 'The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic' Victoriographies – A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Writing. 2016. 1790-1914, vol 6, no. 1. Lee, A. & King, F. D. “ From Text, to Myth, to Meme: Penny Dreadful and Adaptation », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens. Autumn 2016 , Accessed 5 May 2018 via http://journals.openedition.org/cve/2343 ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2343  Keats, J. Ode to A Nightingale. Poetry Foundation. Accessed on 5 May via https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44479/ode-to-a-nightingale  This instance has not been mentioned due to the differentiation that can be made between Victorian poetry and Romantic poetry.