Defanging Ann Radcliffe’s “Salisbury Plains”: The Unexplained Supernatural, Myth, and History

[Paper delivered at NASSR 2011, “Romanticism and Independence,” Park City, Utah, August 11-14, 2011. This paper is an early iteration of a larger essay in progress on Ann Radcliffe and her use of history. ]


Whose were the hands, that upheaved these stones
Standing, like specters, under the moon,
Steadfast and solemn and strange and alone,
As raised by a Wizard—a king of bones!
And whose was the mind, that willed them reign,
The wonder of ages, simply sublime?
The purpose is lost in the midnight of time;
And shadowy guessings alone remain. (I.1-8)

Ann Radcliffe’s poem “Salisbury Plains” begins with two questions: Who hauled and implanted the stones that comprise Stonehenge? And who gave them power to reign and enchant audiences over such a long period of time? Finally, the reader adds her own question: Is this poem, that features a magical Druid battling a werewolf Sorcerer, really by the so-called rationalist gothic author Ann Radcliffe? Happily, the answer is yes. Though usually overlooked by scholars, “Salisbury Plains” is an important work in Radcliffe’s corpus that provides insight into the evolution of her gothic aesthetic at the end of her career. The poem was first published in the 1826 posthumous collection of her work. My best guess is that Radcliffe composed this poem between 1802 and 1811; that is, after she initially sent Gaston de Blondeville to press and before she returned to the same novel some years later (Norton 195-96).[i] This poem demonstrates an experimental use of the supernatural that removes it entirely from Radcliffe’s customary rational gothic plot as well as the romance scenario with hero, heroine, and villain that can be found in every one of her novels as well as her other long poem, “St. Alban’s Abbey.” Instead, the gothic ballad “Salisbury Plains” explores the absolute fringe of where the human meets the fantastic.

This paper draws attention to this work not only because it is seldom studied, but because it asks us to reconsider our preconceived notions of what is “Radcliffean.”

There is almost no critical conversation about “Salisbury Plains” (aside from this paper), but scholarship on the broader subject of Radcliffe’s unexplained supernatural primarily engages the “real” ghost in Gaston de Blondeville, her use of Shakespeare, and more recently by Rictor Norton, the author’s Unitarian cultural background.[ii] Here, I argue that this poem is a response to gendered norms in Romantic gothic fiction established by contemporary authors and critics, especially Sir Walter Scott, and that Radcliffe moves to poetry in order to comment on fiction (Clery 108, Gamer).[iii] For example, Michael Gamer notes that Scott’s effort to align himself with Horace Walpole and claim a masculine authority in the realm of both history and the “pure” supernatural, also defined a feminine opposite: restrained, realist gothic fiction by authors like Radcliffe and Clara Reeve, in which seemingly supernatural events are explained by natural causes.[iv] “Salisbury Plains” articulates Radcliffe’s rejection of the established norms for women novelists of the supernatural gothic. Writing a long gothic ballad authorizes her to infuse a truly unearthly plot with history—two topics that were considered socially threatening to mix in a novel at the turn of the nineteenth century, as the marvelous might dilute the primacy of history and its importance to maintaining order in civil society (Gamer 60). Thus, “Salisbury Plains” can be read as a sharp, feminist critique of her field at the close of her career that was perhaps too political for her comfort to publish and that offers a glimpse of Radcliffe’s genuine interest in history.

The tale is told in 66 stanzas that vary widely from a sestet to 20-lines in length, and many have an irregular rhyme scheme. The narrator invites the reader to “listen and watch,” as this story has never been told to a mortal before. The story begins by citing the barrenness and uninhabitability of the landscape and reminds one of the apocalyptic environment in William Wordsworth’s poem similarly titled “Salisbury Plain.” In Radcliffe’s poem, a sorcerer or wizard, who is a werewolf, once ruled the plain. The evil werewolf came into power by overthrowing the ruling god Odin and stealing his “SONG OF PEACE.” (Odin is the father of the Norse pantheon of gods, as well as the god of war and wisdom.) To fight back, Odin summons a nameless Hermit to do his dirty work for him and overthrow the werewolf sorcerer who stole the song. If the Hermit succeeds, Odin will bequeath him all the lands of the plain. Numerous times, the narrator reminds us that the summoned Hermit is the first of the Druid race who invented all of their laws and rites.

The Hermit will use his “Spell of Minstrelsy” and his magic Aeolian harp as talismans to charm the werewolf into submission. To defeat the werewolf sorcerer, the Hermit must go to his cave, put him to sleep with a magic spell, and then extract all 140 teeth, in triple rows, from the werewolf’s mouth before he wakes up. Finally, the Hermit must bury the teeth nine fathom deep on the plain before the day ends. The Hermit barely manages to pluck out the last fang before the werewolf can respond. The teeth planted on the Plain grow into Stonehenge, but still carry the Sorcerer’s evil powers. To protect against the lingering evil within the stones, the Druids make Stonehenge their temple and through their practice keep the demons at bay. But when the Druid race becomes extinct, the Sorcerer’s curse is unleashed on Salisbury Plain once more. And so the people who made the Plain their home built Salisbury Cathedral with such beautiful, high spires to fend off the residual demons of the defanged werewolf Sorcerer. (I spend this time on the plot of the tale because it is so atypical of what Romanticists think of when we talk generally about Radcliffe’s rational gothic narratives.)

The Hermit’s task to conquer the evil Sorcerer-werewolf and plant his teeth in the soil is a version of the Greek myth of Cadmus. In the myth, Cadmus naively fetches water from a spring belonging to a huge serpent or dragon. This makes the dragon angry and in reprisal it kills most of Cadmus’ men. Cadmus retaliates by crushing the dragon’s head with a rock and Athena instructs him to sow the dragon’s teeth in the soil. When he finishes planting the teeth, they immediately grow into armed warriors who begin fighting one another. Ares then sentences Cadmus to serve in bondage for eight years for killing the dragon, after which Cadmus builds the city of Thebes. (Graves 197-98)

Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617): “Cadmus dræber dragen” (Cadmus Slays the Dragon)

“Salisbury Plains” is not just a marvelously supernatural story based on Cadmus: it is also an allegory. I suggest that the plot that combines elements from Greek, Norse, and Druidical mythologies on the surface and suggests a nationalist English origin myth tells a deeper tale that directly references events surrounding the Glorious Revolution. As we well know, the origin plot and Stonehenge are common motifs in Romantic literature, and in this poem Radcliffe uses these to locate the beginnings of Parliamentary and Protestant rule in England under King William III, as well as the defeat of the French monarch Louis XIV. Additionally, these seventeenth-century historical allusions drape a thin veil over the author’s critique of contemporary late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century politics between Great Britain and France, including Napoleon’s reign.

The heroic Druid-Hermit in this poem can be read as William of Orange. I draw this connection for two reasons: first, Radcliffe reveres William in descriptions of Holland within her 1794 travel narrative, calling him “our William” on several occasions and lavishing pages of her travelogue on his Dutch ancestors; and second, Salisbury Plain plays an important role in William’s path to the English throne. In his political biography of William III, Wout Troost identifies the confrontation of Williams’s and James’s armies on Salisbury Plain as the pivotal event that moved William into a position of power over King James II and ushered him toward kingship. On Nov. 29, 1688, James II arrived in Salisbury at the head of an army of 19,000 men and expected to dominate his Dutch opponent. His forces collapsed immediately when numerous high-ranking officers deserted his army to join William’s forces before any battle took place. Three days later, King James’ army retreated back to London and William demanded that a free parliament convene—one that he knew would soon offer him the crown (Troost 204-6).

Given Radcliffe’s adulation for William III expressed in her travel narrative, as well as the 24 history-rich references to “Louis the Fourteenth” in the same work, it follows that I read the werewolf-Sorcerer in “Salisbury Plains” as the Sun King. My reading is based not only on Radcliffe’s travel writing, but also on Louis’s dental history. Historian Charles Spencer recounts that

[i]n the autumn of 1685, Louis developed an agonizing and persistent toothache, and his doctors decided to extract the offending molar. However, they were ignorant of the importance of post-operative hygiene, and infection set in: the king’s gums, jawbone and sinuses became dangerously inflamed. A committee of nervous physicians concluded that drastic measures were called for. Louis underwent a truly terrible ordeal: they removed all the teeth from the top layer of his mouth, then punctured his palate and broke his jaw. This was all completed without anaesthetic, the king being fully awake throughout the procedure. . . . At least the wounds were kept clean on this occasion—cauterised with red-hot coals. (34)

Spencer adds that “[t]he sun king never fully regained his former dignity. He had to be careful when drinking, in case the contents of his goblet reappeared out of his nose” (34).

Thus, like the werewolf whose 140 teeth were removed by the Hermit, the French King underwent a severely painful tooth extraction process that left him orally crippled and temporarily diminished his power. Despite the spine-chilling severity of Louis’ dental surgery, it was, of course, not the event that led to his monarchical downfall.

Radcliffe’s allegorical reinterpretation of salient 17th-century events in the history of England implies that William of Orange was the dentist responsible for Louis’ tooth loss and his fall from power. However, as I have just recounted, William’s actual opponent on Salisbury Plain was James, not the Sun King, and William had nothing to do with Louis’ dental procedure. Now, why would Radcliffe replace James with Louis XIV in her supernatural allegory? The removal of James from the events in the poem “Salisbury Plains” points to William’s relatively easy path to power as James’ replacement, and France’s far more dangerous threat to William’s throne.

Replacing James with Louis XIV in the allegory can also be explained by the logical comparison between Louis XIV and Napoleon and what I argue is Radcliffe’s additional design to comment broadly on contemporary politics in the early 1800s through the mechanism of 17th-century allusions. Both Louis XIV and Napoleon sought to expand the French empire and relied on brute military force, not diplomacy, to impose their wills in foreign and domestic matters (Spencer 27). In her 1794 travel narrative, the author repeatedly emphasizes the parallel between the two French rulers and their rapacious impact, past and present, on towns she visits on her journey, including Franckenthal, Oggersheim, Manheim, and Worms, Germany. Of Worms specifically, Radcliffe writes:

On the right of the road stands the skeleton of the Electoral palace, which the French burned in one of the late campaigns, and it is as curious as melancholy to observe how the signs ofantient [sic.] and modern desolation mingle with each other. On one hand is a palace, burned by the present French; on the other the walls of a church, laid open by Louis the Fourteenth.

The first and principal street of the place leads through these mingled ruins and through rows of dirty houses miserably tenanted to the other end of the city. (239, emphases mine)

As this excerpt shows, Radcliffe takes care to notice the generations of damage done to Worms by the French; how Louis XIV battered this city 100 years before Napoleon did, and how the ruins of those subsequent attacks echo one another, set reconstruction back even further, and suggest history repeating itself during Napoleon’s reign. Another clue that the werewolf also represents Napoleon is his status as a usurper. The werewolf seizesruling power from Odin by stealing, not inheriting, the SONG OF PEACE—just as Bonaparte completed a coup d’état and wrested control of France from The Directory in 1799. If the werewolf is a kind of mash-up of the two French rulers, Bonaparte and the Sun King, Radcliffe poses a question: who will be the William III of the early nineteenth century to challenge Napoleon’s destructive campaigns and dictatorship? In the first decade of the 1800s, the French commander was in the process of trampling Europe: he named himself Emperor, won major battles such as those in Ulm, Austria and Austerlitz, Germany, destroyed the Prussians at Auerstadt, and won the massive battle of Wagram in 1809. In that first decade, imagining Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow and 1815 defeat at Waterloo likely would have stretched the imagination—perhaps into the realm of the supernatural.

Though dreaming up an English hero in the spirit of William III to defeat the French Empire sounds sufficiently patriotic, William’s Dutch heritage complicates the fantasy. Radcliffe’s reliance on the theme of dental transplantation in the allegory amplifies the dubiously patriotic message of her poem. From 1750 to the turn of the century, it was in fashion for the wealthy to pay for the transplantation of live incisors, cuspids, and bicuspids from donor mouths to replace their own rotten or unsightly teeth (Blackwell 22). The disenfranchized were frequent donors, as they received payment for their healthy-looking chops. Teeth, then, became contested sites of vanity, race and class mixing, and commodification of the body, and raised concerns about contamination and contagion. According to Mark Blackwell, “contagion . . . haunted period discussions of teeth and transplantation both as an apt metaphor and as a worrisome fact, especially once live-tooth transplantation became associated with the transmission of an inexplicably virulent strain of venereal disease” (24). That vanity and venereal disease can meet in the mouth in the case of 18th-century live-tooth transplants means that kingly decadence is not only deadly for the king, but has the potential to spread, disease-like, by word-of-mouth, and exacerbate repression, but also to incite revolution.

Thomas Rowlandson “Transplanting of Teeth” (1787)

By extracting the Sorcerer’s teeth, carrying them to the plain, and burying them, the Hermit/Druid performs a live-transplant operation in which he implants organic pieces of France in English soil. The jaws of France then sprout into Stonehenge—an English countryside landmark that still fascinates travelers and historians today as a symbol of mystery, the sublime, and the picturesque. But from a certain perspective, these famous stones also look like rotting teeth. Radcliffe’s poem ends with the decaying mouth of France, or Stonehenge, erupting with evil spirits and infecting the landscape after the Druid race dies off. The image asks British readers to reconsider the legacy of the Glorious Revolution as an early victory over a chronic French foe—one that will repeatedly plague England from its domestic countryside to its cultural identity in the years to come.

I would like to conclude by thinking about the way in which the supernatural and history work together in this poem. In the most recent biography of Radcliffe, Rictor Norton claims that “[h]istory held relatively little importance for Ann Radcliffe. . . . [she] valued primarily the splendour and mystery of an idealized late-medieval transitional period when she could commingle high passions with exquisite taste” (72). My analysis of “Salisbury Plains” as well as her 1794 travel narrative counters Norton’s assertion that Radcliffe was not interested in history. The historical allusions within this poem—including William of Orange’s confrontation with James II on Salisbury Plain in 1688, Louis XIV’s traumatic tooth removal in 1685, the rivalry between Kings William and Louis, and finally Britain’s troubled relationship with the Emperor Napoleon—sustain and support what would otherwise be a one-dimensional supernatural gothic poem.

Radcliffe’s posthumously published essay entitled “On the Supernatural in Poetry” begins with a dialogue between two male travel companions: Mr. Simpson and Mr. Willoughton. The travelers debate for the length of the essay about the best way to convey the supernatural in writing. Simpson is a rationalist and a measured voice of Enlightenment principles. He argues that to successfully write the supernatural, one must ground it in the real world and the familiar. Willoughton, on the other hand, is the more fanciful and “Romantic” of the two, and he argues that a writer should privilege the unearthly and the ethereal in order to excite the reader’s imagination. While most scholars have used this essay as a means of understanding Radcliffe’s differentiation between terror and horror (as described by Willoughton), I suggest that we take this dialogue at face value. Willoughton and Simpson’s dialogue about the best way to convey the supernatural indicates that Radcliffe’s supernatural aesthetic is also a dialogue between the two poles of the rational and inexplicable gothic. And by ending the essay in the middle of the dialogue, unresolved, the author recommends a play between realist and fanciful elements when conveying the supernatural. Of eighteenth-century female authors, E. J. Clery writes that “[a] woman wishing to publish fiction in a supernatural vein needed to be prepared to negotiate” (106). While the rational gothic novel represents Radcliffe’s attempts to balance social expectations with her authorial imagination, “Salisbury Plains” reveals that she at least experimented with another strategy: a journey out of the novel and into the dragon’s maw of history, the unexplained supernatural, and gothic balladry.

[i]The author and her husband visited Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge in October of 1797, and may have made repeat visits as they did to several places that Radcliffe wrote about in her late career, like St. Alban’s Abbey. She writes about these destinations in her travel journal (Talfourd 56) and references Stonehenge briefly in Gaston de Blondeville.

[ii] For example, of Gaston de Blondeville, Robert F. Geary argues that “[Radcliffe’s] practice in Gaston suggests that, in the classic phase of the Gothic novel, temporal distance and the use of the supernatural were intimately related, with the pseudo-medieval settings (in ages conventionally thought of as backward and gullible) making the supernatural seem ‘safe’ by freeing authors from the imputation of superstition while letting the readers indulge their growing taste for the numinous” (190). In her article on Radcliffe’s use of Shakespeare, Angela Write argues that “it is only through recasting the ‘work-a-day’ world as a theater that ‘fancy’ can be recaptured at all. Her posthumously published works suggest that for Radcliffe, where the reality of the everyday, politically fraught England was doomed to disappoint, the recollection of Shakespeare redeemed it” (119), and that “her final, posthumously published work Gaston de Blondeville, with its accompanying prefatory dialogue between Willoughton and Simpson, suggests that Radcliffe suffered a crisis of imagination as well as an interruption in her imaginative engagement with Shakespeare. This was possibly grounded in the political disappointment of the early 1800s” (121).

[iii] E. J. Clery contends that Radcliffe invented her “explained supernatural” plot structures in order to write the supernatural without deviating entirely from nature, as social restraints for female authors of fiction—works that were supposed to “instruct”—required her to. (109)

[iv] An example of Walter Scott’s critique of rational gothic: In his “Prefatory Memoir to Mrs. Ann Radcliffe,” Scott says of her rational gothic style: “Her heroines often sustain the agony of fear, and her readers that of suspense, from incidents which, when explained, appear of an ordinary and trivial nature; and in this we do not greatly applaud her art. A stealthy step behind the arras, may doubtless, in some situations, and when the nerves are tuned to a certain pitch, have no small influence upon the imagination; but if the conscious listener discovers it to be only the noise made by the cat, the solemnity of the feeling is gone, and the visionary is at once angry with his senses for having been cheated, and with his reason for having acquiesced in the deception. We fear that some such feeling of disappointment and displeasure attends most readers, when they read for the first time the unsatisfactory solution of the mysteries of the black pall and the wax figure, which has been adjourned from chapter to chapter, like something suppressed, because too horrible for the ear. . . . The reader feels tricked, and like a child who has once seen the scenes of a theatre too nearly, the idea of past-board, cords, and pulleys, destroys for ever the illusion with which they were first seen from the proper point of view. Such are the difficulties and dilemmas which attend the path of the professed story-teller, who, while it is expected of him that his narrative should be interesting and extraordinary, is neither permitted to explain its wonders, by referring them to ordinary causes, on account of their triteness, nor to supernatural agency, because of its incredibility. It is no wonder that, hemmed in by rules so strict, Mrs. Radcliffe, a mistress of the art of exciting curiosity, has not been uniformly fortunate in the mode of gratifying it. (Rogers 122-23)

Works Cited

Blackwell, Mark. “‘Extraneous Bodies’: The Contagion of Live-Tooth Transplantation in Late-Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth-Century Life 28.1 (Winter 2004): 21-68.

Clery, E. J. The Rise of Supernatural Fiction: 1762 – 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Gamer, Michael. Romanticism and The Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Geary, Robert F. “Ann Radcliffe’s ‘Real’ Ghost: The Fantastic Supernatural in Gaston de Blondeville.” Flashes of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from The War of the Worlds Centennial, Nineteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. David Ketterer. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood, 2004.

Graves, Robert, ed. The Greek Myths. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2001.

Norton, Rictor. Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe. London and New York: Leicester UP, 1999.

Radcliffe, Ann. A Journey made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western Fronteir of Germany, with a Return Down the Rhine: To Which Are Added Observations during a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1795.

—. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine 16.1 (1826): 145-152.

—. “Salisbury Plains.” The Poetical Works of Anne Radcliffe: St. Alban’s Abbey, A Metrical Romance; with Other Poems. Vol II. London: Henry Colburn and R. Bentley, 1834.

Rogers, Deborah D., ed. The Critical Response to Ann Radcliffe. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwoood, 1994.

Spencer, Charles. Battle for Europe: How the Duke of Marlborough Masterminded the Defeat of France at Blenheim. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Talfourd, Thomas Noon, ed. Gaston de Blondeville, or The Court of Henry III . . . St. Alban’s Abbey . . . Posthumous Words . . . Memoir, 4 vols. London: Henry Colburn, 1826.

Troost, Wout. William III, the Stadtholder-King: A Political Biography. Trans. J. C. Grayson. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Wright, Angela. “In search of Arden: Ann Radcliffe’s William Shakespeare.” Gothic Shakespeares. Eds. John Drakakis and Dale Townshend. New York: Routledge, 2008.



  1. Fascinating, Kirstyn! I have to admit that I’m unfamiliar with this poem, but you make me want to read it. I don’t think I want to read much more about Louis XIV’s dental work, though …

    1. Kirstyn Leuner

      It really lives up to the teaser that this paper provides. Do it! It blew me away when I stumbled across it while reading for my comprehensive exams. What a great find.

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