I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
William Blake, A Poison Tree
Encountering that poem as a child, it struck a chord deep inside me. It was perhaps the first time I had seen written the idea that anger, venom, vengeance, were things that grew in the darkness, in silence. It was the first time I’d encountered the idea that to speak a thing was to kill it, that one could cultivate a grievance as surely as any plant.
Darkness, unknowing, is a pre-requisite for growth. We bury things deep down to give them the quiet and unknowing in which to change, to develop. Seeds are put in to the earth, and only there they can sprout and emerge – at last – as frail green shoots. To pry before then is to court disaster, to show one’s own lack of comprehension. Speaking of ideas, Van Helsing says,
You do not find the good husbandman dig up his planted corn to see if he grows; that is for children who play at husbandry, and not for those who take it as the work of their life. See you now, friend John? I have sown my corn, and nature has her work to do in making it sprout;
Humans grow in darkness, too. The private space of the womb – before modern medical intervention – was a place of unknowing where a person came together unseen, before they were ready to emerge in to the light. The link between the transformations of pregnancy and death are well established. Cultures around the world have buried bodies in the foetal position, as though hoping that they would emerge from the womb of the earth, reborn; as though the darkness might do its work, and undo the seed-like inertia of death.
But what emerges from this place? What comes from the earth – from death? T.S. Eliot, in the aftermath of the First World War, wrote the oft quoted,
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
We watch over graves, as though hoping for a shoot of our loved ones’ resurrections – but things laid in the earth should, perhaps, remain there. In a Europe seeded with the slaughter of mechanised warfare, the re-birth of the gassed, broken, traumatised bodies of soldiers could bring nothing but pain. Better, perhaps, to forget.
The myth of the vampire answers this fear directly. In Dracula, Lucy is buried and – in the darkness – is transformed. Callous, murderous and capable only of destroying those who had adored her in life, she is more peaceful dead. The Count himself lays himself in the earth to grow young. Prying, Jonathon Harker, interrupts this, leaving a livid mark across Dracula’s forehead, a mark which identifies him, which helps them destroy him, and contain this re-emergence from the grave.
Yet, all the same, mixing memory with desire, we ache for this rebirth, pursuing it through religion, metaphor, ritual. This is not the ancient past: recent developments in eco-burials place the deceased in the foetal position, wrap them in an ‘egg’ and bury them with the seeds of a tree. As the years pass, and the mourners watch, the dead gives new life to a plant, making a sacred forest, a living monument, a rebirth. Years ago, trying to design my own Tarot deck, I drew the Death card as a woman, bare breasted, heavily pregnant, kneeling in prayer by a tree. Below the ground, unseen to her, a toddler lay in the foetal position, the roots wrapped around their curled form.
Transformation, growth, rebirth.
It is only human to want to look into those dark places, to rob them of both their terror and their power. Ultrasound scans peer into the privacy of the womb, letting a parent see exactly what grows within them. PET scans try to capture the secret movement of thoughts. We watch everything, hungry to see what will emerge. The dark frightens us. We would rob it of terror.
But as Blake knew, there are other forms of darkness. People only know of us what we chose, what we are able, to disclose. While speaking our wrath might end it, not all grievances can be so aired. Within so many of us, there are poison trees growing – watered with tears, sunned by “soft, deceitful wiles”.
What grows in the darkness of our mind? What will emerge at the end of long nights of brooding?
When picking a cover image for Scars on Sound , Ruth and I settled on one from a sequence we refer to as ‘the babyseed’, showing something changing, growing, malevolent and unwatched. After all, that is the terror of the Gothic. It is secrets that are hidden, arts concealed. It is repressed desires and the madwoman in the attic. It is the home of things that pushed down, pushed away.
And those things we push away are so so often, are gendered, so often profiled by race, by class, by sexuality. So often the Gothic shows people who lack temporal power wielding some dread and supernatural might, screaming out against the injustices done to them. Sometimes, they are merely warning, a preface to the more dangerous spirits of those who wronged them. Sometimes, though, they enact their own vengeance, seizing some freedom they cannot have by ordinary means.
Somewhere, in the darkness, seeds are growing. We can only wonder what their fruits might be.