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The Gothic Juvenal: Matthew Lewis and the Roman Roots of the Gothic

James Uden

Matthew Lewis scandalized England in 1796 when he published The Monk, a macabre and wildly-popular Gothic novel filled with murder, incest, lascivious monks and satanic seduction. Among Lewis’s next works was something quite different: a long verse imitation of the thirteenth Satire of Juvenal, The Love of Gain (1799), in which he augmented the Roman poet’s work with all manner of Gothic paraphernalia – storms, demons, nocturnal terrors, psychological and religious conflict, and the lurid description of crime. This paper examines The Love of Gain, which was little-read in its time and virtually unknown today. I argue that Lewis found in Juvenal a precedent for the Gothic novel’s feverish emotions and fascination with transgression and excess. Audaciously, the English author retrospectively fashions the classical Roman poet as a progenitor of the Gothic.

Juvenal’s thirteenth Satire is typically interpreted as a parody of a philosophic consolatio (Pryor 1962, Fredericks 1971, Braund 1997). The interlocutor of the poem, Calvinus, is furious that he has been swindled of some money, but, rather than consoling him, Juvenal’s satiric speaker rants about the ubiquity of vice in Rome, apparently provoking rather than calming his interlocutor’s wrath. In The Love of Gain, Lewis maintains the same basic scenario as Satire 13, but Lewis trains his attention instead on an aspect of Juvenal’s poem less remarked-upon by modern commentators: its description of religious states. Plutarch had identified atheism and superstition as two opposing extremes in his On Superstition, and Juvenal brings both to life in the thirteenth Satire, vividly describing both the man who scoffs at the gods’ punishments (31-7), and the man who, with superstitious terror, is consumed with the perpetua anxietas of a guilty conscience (210-235). Lewis greatly expands upon both passages in his imitation, describing the atheists ‘who scorn that heaven, and mock that hell’ (144), and detailing at length the gruesome ‘Denizens of hell’ (390) who dog and torment the hearts of the guilty. According to Peter Brooks, the Gothic writers of the eighteenth century substituted a genuine sense of the sacred with a ‘primitive force within nature that strikes fear into men’s hearts but does not move them to allegiance and worship’ (1973: 251). The Love of Gain finds this force not in nature, but in Juvenal, whose own text oscillated violently between the evocation of different religious extremes. Moreover, in The Love of Gain, it is the satiric speaker who describes these inconsistent religious states with frenzied hyperbole and brings them to life: as in Juvenal, Lewis’s speaker embodies, rather than critiques, emotional excess. 

The classical verse imitation and the Gothic novel occupied opposing poles of literary respectability in the late eighteenth-century, and The Love of Gain found little popularity among either genre’s readership (McDonald 2000: 142-4). Indeed, a Gothicizing imitation of a classical satire seems like a paradoxical literary project, since the Gothic aesthetic was articulated precisely in distinction to neoclassical, Horatian ideals of propriety, balance, decorum, and taste. Yet Lewis’s imitation of Juvenal’s thirteenth Satire, as well as being a canny reading of the earlier Latin poem, also seeks to confound any simple distinction between the classical and the Gothic. Lewis implicitly demonstrates that Juvenal’s own rhetorical excess, and his lurid descriptions of vice, offer a classical model for his own (disreputable) contemporary genre. A ‘Gothic Juvenal’ might seem an unlikely proposition, but The Love of Gain shows how it makes sense, and in doing so it draws attention to the frenzied rhetorical energy and morbid fascination with vice that drive Juvenalian satire itself. 

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The Descent of Satire from Old Comedy to the Gothic

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