A brief commentary on Anne Bannerman’s The Mermaid
Anne Bannerman’s poetry contributed to a revival of the gothic and the ballad genres in 19th century Scotland. Her work was influenced by folklore and mythology, motifs from which she freely embedded within her writing. Bannerman was also passionate about constructing strong, independent femme fatale characters and she was acutely curious about exploring the sublimity of nature (Craciun, 2002). The Mermaid is one of her most celebrated poems and it is a powerful and captivating illustration of the author’s aesthethic sensitivity and thematic interests. In the text, the terrifying forces of nature are depicted through vivid images of a sea coast during a winter’s night: the blowing wind is expressed as “death-fraught whirlwinds,” the crashing waves are “troubled” and the night becomes not simply foggy or lacking in light but cloaked by “impenetrable clouds.” The invocation of death, the creation of a sinister, disturbed atmosphere where darkness prevails are literary choices that align with Gothic conventions in order to elicit the response of fear in readers (Holland and Sherman, 1977; Keech, 1974.)
The siren speaker works in unison with the forces of nature. She associates herself with the cataclysmic, chaotic side of nature, stating “My solitary watch I keep, / And listen, while the turbid deep / Groans to the raging tempests, as they roll / Their desolating force, to thunder at the pole” (I. 7-10). The use of terms such as “turbid”, “deep”, “raging”, “desolating”, “thunder” expresses some of the ways the mermaid perceives and experiences nature. In fact, the speaker employs a similar vocabulary in relation to her own actions: she wants to “lure” sailors to their “doom,” she possesses “fury” and a “callous heart,” she is “unpitying” and wants “to destroy.” In this regard, the mermaid identifies with the space both by positioning herself within it and by defining herself by the same terms that characterize the setting. In fact, the speaker explicitly states her autonomy in making the decision to be one with the horrifying nature: “Mine was the choice, in this terrific form, / To brave the icy surge, to shiver in the storm” (II. 19-20). By invoking the monstrous aspects of the space, the darkness, danger and deathliness of it, the mermaid succeeds in articulating her own monstrosity. In this sense space functions as a way not only to create the sublime feeling of awe and terror, but it also serves as means to convey and strengthen what is monstrous in the speaker.
1) Craciun, Adriana. “Fatal Women of Romanticism.” Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Craciun’s publication provides a brief overview of the archetype of femme fatale in literature as a seductress who lures or tricks her enemies. Examples of such characters are Eve, Pandora, Cleopatra, Lady MacBeth. In “Fatal Women of Romanticism” the scholar’s particular interest falls on the examination of women writers during the Romantic/Gothic period who invoked the fatal woman in their work. One such author is Anne Bannerman. Craciun draws from Bannerman’s letter communication with Dr. Robert Anderson to provide what is likely the most extensive biographical information on the Scottish author, including knowledge about her family, her literary influences, her professional experiences (p. 157). Craciun briefly discusses the poem The Mermaid and does so to establish how the siren speaker challenges “the popular generalization that femmes fatales are figments of misogynist fantasy”(p. 159.)
2) Dunnigan, Sarah. “Strange stories: Collecting, Translating, and Imagining Mermaids in Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland”, Sun Yat-sen Journal of Humanities. 2011.
Sarah Dunnigan’s essay is an in-depth examination of the presence of mermaids in Scottish literature in the 1800s. She looks into various literatures from Scottish folklore, myths, translations from the legends and songs of other cultures, and original Scottish writing which depict mermaids as primary or secondary characters. Dunnigan’s analysis of Bannerman’s The Mermaid both evaluates the work and contrasts it with other representations of mermaids in order to focus on the uniqueness of the poem. The scholar argues this ballad is vastly different from the majority of mermaid-themed literature in a few key ways. Bannerman’s mermaid speaks through the first-person voice and thus obtains overt rhetorical agency. Her independence is also expressed through her demonic powers (she conjures storms to drown sailors,) her unapologetic confession that she possesses a “callous heart” (Bannerman 24) and is a creator of chaos. Moreover, the author does not explicitly describe the physical appearance of the mermaid which Dunnigan argues is a choice that makes the character a figure resistant to entering any taxonomy. Some of her qualities such as vengefulness and darkness are invoked through association by the description of nature. However, unlike the historical and cultural traditions of mermaids wherein mermaids can be categorized much more easily, Bannerman’s poem does not give any direct descriptions of the mermaid.
3) Holland, Norman and Sherman, Leona. “Gothic Possibilities.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. New Literary History. Vol. 8. No. 2, Explorations in Literary History. Winter, 1977. pp. 279 – 294
This publication dissects various aspects of gothic literature in order to address a variety of possible explanations for the popularity of the genre. Norman and Sherman address the issue of space from a few different perspectives. For example, they look at space as something that lends itself to “projections of the unconscious material” and how emotions and relationships embedded in a space alter its meaning. Additionally, the authors address how the tension between the inner world of a character (i.e. emotions, thoughts) gives rise to new meanings when put in parallel to the outer world of a character (i.e. space.) Although Norman and Sherman illustrate their ideas largely by drawing from The Castle of Otranto, their conceptual work could easily apply to Bannerman’s The Mermaid as well. One apparent example comes from the siren speaker’s statement: “Mine was the choice in this terrific form,/ To brave the icy surge, to shiver in the storm.” She diffuses any type of possible inner/outer world tension, and thus by using the monstrosity of the landscape, claims her own monstrosity.
4) Keech, James. “The Survival of the Gothic Response.” University of North Texas Press. Studies in the Novel, Vol. 6, No. 2. Summer 1974. pp. 130-144.
Keech considers some of the limitations embedded in the traditional Gothic conventions and offers a reimagining of what can constitute Gothic expression in contemporary writing. He posits that the response of the Gothic novel is and should be fear. In the scholar’s view, some of the best Gothic works are successful works of art because they produced a “universal and enduring response” (p. 131.) In this train of thought, Keech suggests that what matters in this genre is not what is seen but what is sensed by the reader beyond sight. The author examines Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to argue that in these works, much like in traditionally Gothic novels such as The Castle of Otranto or Frankenstein, “the setting exists to convey the atmosphere,” (p. 135) particularly an atmosphere of horror and fear, thus signaling there is room to expand and evolve current definitions of Gothic. Keech devotes a significant part of the remainder of his paper in discussing various aspects and qualities of a setting, such as ominousness, isolation, incorporation of evil or death, that are crucial to Gothic conventions.
5) Moore, Jared. “The Sublime, and Other Subordinate Esthetic Concepts.” The Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 45, No. 2. 1948. pp. 42-47.
Moore explores a variety of categories related to the concept of beauty. He defines five distinct groups: the sublime, the pretty, the brilliant, the statuesque, the picturesque. The scholar provides theoretical context by referencing and analyzing the philosophical works of Ruskin, Price, Burke, and then analyzes, compares, and contrasts each aesthetic type. Moore largely draws examples from art, specifically painting and literature, in order to illustrate what is characteristic or what is shared between the proposed categories. The author argues that in the sublime, there is “a preponderance of object over mind and of idea over form” (p. 47.) He finds that elements of pain and danger are central to the nature of the sublime. Moreover, Moore claims there should be a conflict in the mind of the reader between the horrific and the aesthetically pleasing or beautiful for the experience to have the proper effect and be called sublime.