top of page

A Moonlight Traveler in Fancy’s Land: Interpreting Madison Cawein’s Ghosts in Paul Sánchez’s Gothic Atonement

Updated: Jul 8

The poetry of Madison Cawein (1865-1914) is a reflection on the tumultuous upheavals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet until recently, his work has been long forgotten in literary circles and passed over for musical settings by composers who have preferred the free verse modernists. In addition to his many volumes of poetry (36 volumes, 2700 poems) featuring subjects of nature, war, nostalgia, spiritualism, and transcendentalism, several of Cawein’s poems also contain mythical and gothic elements, as can be evidenced in “Waste Land,” the progenitor of T.S. Eliot’s, “The Waste Land.” Unlike Eliot who sought to revolutionize poetry through more modern free verse forms, often using mythical elements to evoke the fragile psychological state of humanity, Cawein preferred more traditional poetic forms, and his poetry is full of reassuring statements outlining his actual belief in ghosts, faeries, and the supernatural. It is this side of Cawein’s poetry that has attracted the attention of American composer, Paul Sánchez, whose fifth large-scale song cycle, Gothic Atonement, imposes a narrative of loss, betrayal, and resignation on five of Cawein’s unrelated poems. Each text contains images and psychological states largely connected to discourses of late nineteenth-century gothic fiction such as old houses (the homely Gothic), ghosts, putrefaction, and the  “uncanny,” aspects have been given little attention in Cawein’s work. This paper draws upon Jacques Derrida’s concept of “hauntology” and Sigmund Freud’s concept of the “uncanny” to interpret Sánchez’s selected musical renderings of Cawein’s ghosts, ultimately revealing a new strand of gothicism in modern song composition, one of intense emotional extremes, yet full of eternal stillness. Tangentially, it also aims to intensify the scholarly discourse on Cawein and to ignite analytical perspectives in the work of one of America’s new leading song composers.

Known as the “The Keats of Kentucky,” Madison’s Cawein was quite popular during his  heyday, having attracted the attention of William Dean Howells, Harold Monro, president Theodore Roosevelt, and several literati circles in Europe, and is has been suggested that his work revitalized the reputation of American poetry in European circles at a time when its influence had waned. However, in order for early twentieth century literary critics to make their coveted chronological narratives tidier, Cawein’s position in the American literary canon has now taken a back seat. He wrote in traditional verse forms during a time when more modernist approaches to writing were becoming fashionable. Since his death in 1914, several scholars and critics have put forth more categorical divisions of his poetry to reveal the nuances in his work, yet none have mentioned the Gothic tinges that are present in several of his poems. Gothicism as manifested in several of Cawein’s poems through imagery, mode of discourse, and narrative patterns provides insight into another side of his work, particularly the use of the “uncanny.”

The uncanny elements that characterized a large part of homely gothic fiction and poetry in the late nineteenth century, specifically through ghosts, doubles, and alter egos, aided in the destabilization of the boundaries between psyche and reality and opened up an indeterminate zone that blurred the differences between fantasy and actuality. Sigmund Freud writes about the uncanny in 1922, noting that “in general we are reminded that the word hemlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight … everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” This presents several challenges in categorizing gothic utterances as they are represented sonically, as sound challenges the relations between visibility and presence and invisibility and absence.1 The spectral phenomenology itself partly contributes to gothic’s sonic uncanny, particularly in the later nineteenth-century tradition when writers were participating and shaping a tradition that explored terrors and horrors closer to home (as in Cawein’s "Praeterita").

The visible and disembodied terms which have often been used to conceive of spectrality characterize Sánchez’s rendering of Cawein’s gothic texts. Spectrality interrupts chronology and has several disruptive effects on the perceptions of linear time. Jacques Derrida describes the spectre with a reference to Shakespeare: “the time is out of joint: time is disarticulated, dislocated, dislodged, time is run down, on the run and run down, deranged, both out of order and mad. Time is off its hinges, time is off its course, besides itself, disadjusted.” Cawein’s ghosts remind us that gothic time is always out of joint, using each present to house spectres of various pasts, and the various phenomenological experiences of musical time add additional layers to the interpretations of gothic temporality. The focus on spectrality as a pervasive cultural condition has been thoroughly examined in Derrida’s account of hauntology, a term he characterized as a state of temporal, historical, and ontological disjunction in which presence is replaced by a deferred non-origin. Considering the phantomality of narration, the notion that the ghost story’s medium of transmission – language – is not a stable signifier, the gothic as a mode of discourse can be seen as hauntological in that putting Cawein’s ghosts into words “creates the phantoms inhabiting the narrative and also evokes the spectres of language.”2

Sánchez’s Gothic Atonement imposes a narrative of disparate incidents told from a single protagonist, beginning first with Cawein’s poem “Praeterita,” which already contains imagery of the sonic gothic embedded in the last line of text through the ghost’s harpsichord. We see that images of decay, putrefaction, and eternal stillness are heavily present in the opening stanza. Sounds that appear to emanate from nowhere to accompany the suffocating spaces for the first appearance of the cycle’s ghost – the protagonist’s beloved. The encounter with her has rendered the familiarity he once had with his home as eerie, or “uncanny” in Freud’s use of the term. The slow tempo, repeated rhythm in the left hand, slow harmonic rhythm, and continued return to the G pitch center throughout the harmonic spaces evoke a sense of the disturbingly familiar, the desolate habitat of a romantic wanderer who unknowingly encounters part of his past. Anxiety arises after the protagonist senses that “silence talks,” as we are now confronted with the possibility that this is now not his home as it once was.

We immediately suspect a supernatural presence, one whose sounds of echo and wind are produced from an unknowable source, which leaves the reader to wonder as to whether the protagonist is himself insane or experiencing a hallucination. Upon entering the avoided room near the end he encounters his Beloved with “ghostly golden hair” sitting at their old harpsichord, which Sánchez depicts as being out of tune by using a leitmotive set in minor 2nds. The motive’s entrance generates several interpretations that could be seen as having a hauntological presence: 1) it first functions as a kind of echo, one that encapsulates the horror experienced by the protagonist upon seeing his beloved as a corpse while also anticipating the possibility of physical movement from her; 2) It arrives two measures after the speaker’s final utterance in the piano, giving the impression of a disembodied voice that can only speak through an inanimate musical object. We know she is there, but we do not know how she got there nor what she is specifically uttering through this antiquated instrument; how often do we see our spouse as a corpse about to play music for us in that “forbidden room” of our old house?; and 3) we also may deduce from this echo a material contact with its sound generator – the harpsichord. Writing about the material quality of sounds as having a temporal dimension, Isabella van Eleferen insightfully observed that “echo suggest physical presence but is disconnected from it like a doppelgänger of its former self, temporally removed from it and therefore fundamentally out of joint… It is this ambiguity that allows perceivers to project onto them the haunting agency of their own repressed anxieties and thus to endow it with uncanniness.”3 The music in a way has invited a ghost from the protagonist’s past.

The narrator appears to succumb to what may be a hallucination in “Ghosts,” blurring the temporal scheme. The imagery of the text immediately signifies a writing of excess: on the one hand, we are not sure if the protagonist is clearly insane, induces a feeling of terror from the reader, yet on the other, it seems nearly laughable that he appears to be waltzing with a corpse. The pitches are muted by pressing a squeegee over the strings, evoking the eerie sounds of an old music box and are played with a sparse waltz texture in the left hand. Curiosity, excitement, and the uncanny in the passage freezes our faculties of reason, passivizing the mind and immobilizing the body. The sparse texture, slow tempo, and clear phrase terminations in the piano adds to this the weight of horror being expressed, encouraging a revulsive and contracted response to the text, wallowing in its effects.

2. Ghosts (Denial)

In “The Vampire,” the protagonist has now sold his soul to the devil for a moment of pleasure. He has descended into madness and seems all too willing to betray the memory of his Beloved, only to later realize the fault of his transgression that causes him to seek atonement. The slow repeated four-note ascending figuration from the outset signifies that our wanderer has been induced into a trance-like state. The text suggests that he retains a minimal amount of agency; he seems to be horrified by what he sees, yet does nothing to stop it: as uttered in the fourth stanza, “God shall not take me from this hour.” In perhaps the most uncanny moment in the cycle, a perceived arrival of the offscreen spectral presence occurs in m. 18 with the arrival of the Beloved’s theme placed in octaves in the low register of the piano. The dynamic contrast from the song’s beginning texture aids in blurring the spatio-temporal dimensions that so characterize the Gothic as a narrative mode of discourse. The theme’s entrance encourages us to imagine a doubling, as the vampirress is assigned the theme of the Beloved, encouraging the perspective of a hauntological presence in an unclearly defined past that has now been transformed into the present. The uncanniness of the beloved now possibly existing in the protagonist’s insane mind in the form of vampiress who is about to devour him reveals a common example of the gothic as a language of opposite extremes: the beautiful can be horrific. These spatio-temporal boundaries are further blurred by the large rhythmic augmentation of the theme which has become nearly unrecognizable due the degree of durational increase and its proportional irregularity. The supernatural has given way to the psychological, leaving our protagonist unsure of himself and his own environment.

3. The Vampire (Betrayal)

4. At Midnight (Atonement)

5. At Dawn (Bliss)

Gothic Atonement is currently one of the most important examples to rejuvenate, reanimate, and revitalize the curious reception of Madison’s Cawein’s poetry in modern song. Furthermore, it may possibly prove to reevaluate and reintensify the debates surrounding Cawein’s poetry in American literati circles. Cawein never prophesized that his words would be remembered through musical settings with newly imagined and imposed narratives, nor would he have considered that his foray into the Gothic would have had more interest to later readers than his poems about nature and romance. However he did wish that his poetry would live, and Sánchez’s setting not only demonstrates that Cawein’s wish was worth fulfilling, but also that Cawein’s gothic ghosts as presented through more conservative approaches to verse can allow for new opportunities for the modern song composer to contribute to gothic musical discourse.

  1. Don Idhe, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (New York: State University of New York Press, 1976).

  2. Isabella van Elferen, Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012).

  3. Ibid., 5?

Selected Bibliography

Andrew, Jeffrey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Blanche McGill, Anna. “The Other Madison Cawein.” The Sewanee Review 23 no. 4 (Oct. 1915): 418-428.

Botting, Fred. Gothic. Philadelphia: Routledge Press, 2013.

Cawein, Madison. “Madison Cawein’s Reply to Shaemas O’Sheel’s Criticism of His New Poems.” New Times (December 1912): 719.

Covi, Madeline. “Madison Cawein: A Landscape Poet.” The Kentucky Review 3 no. 3 (1982): 3-19.

Guthrie, William Norman. “A Southern Poet.” 1 no. 3 (May, 1893): 290-308.

Elferen, Isabella van. Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012.

Hogle, Jerrold, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Howells, W.D. “The Poetry of Madison Cawein.” The North American Review 187 no. 626 (Jan. 1908): 124-128.

Idhe, Don. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. New York: State University of New York Press, 1976.

McGille, Anna Blanche. “The Other Madison Cawein.” The Sewanee Review 23 no. 4 (October, 1915): 418-428.

Rothert, Otto A. The Story of a Poet: Madison Cawein; His Intimate Life as Revealed by His Letters and List of His Poems. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1921.

Rutledge, John. “Madison Cawein as an Exponent of German Culture.” Filson Club History Quarterly 51 no. 1 (1977): 5-16.

Townsend, John. “A Biographical Sketch of Madison Cawein, of Louisville Kentucky.” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society 4 no. 10 (January, 1906): 21, 23-30.  

Wilson, John Townsend. Kentucky in American Letters, 1784-1912. Cedar Rapids Iowa: The Torch Press, 1913.

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page