‘Monk’ Lewis’ “The Isle of Devils” and the Perils of Colonialism
This essay focuses on Matthew “Monk” Lewis’ poem “The Isle of Devils,” which appears in his Journal of a West India Proprietor. The poem relates the story of a shipwrecked woman, Irza, who finds herself at the mercy of a “Fiend” on an unnamed island that lies somewhere off the coast of Africa. With an analysis of the splitting of binaries such as colonizer/colonized, fertility/barrenness, mothering/murder, and poison/antidote/pharmakon contained in the poem, this essay investigates the dynamics of colonization. I discuss miscegenation and hybridity in connection with the Fiend and Irza’s children, who perish at the hands of the father following the mother’s abandonment of her family, and in the context of Lewis’ Journal. By way of a Derridean approach, the seemingly contradictory action of healing/harming in the poem gives way to a reading of the Fiend and Irza as equally to blame for the bloody demise of their island family, and one can call into question who—and what—is “monstrous.”
Faced with the reality that the ship he travels on is sinking, Gonzalo (a counselor of Alonso, King of Naples) in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) exclaims: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of/sea for an acre of barren ground: long heath,/brown furze, anything. The wills above be done,/ but I would fain die a dry death” (I.1.67-70). Gonzalo does not meet his death, either on land or on sea, and finds himself shipwrecked with his companions upon Prospero’s island. Shakespeare’s play incorporates several time-tested literary elements of shipwrecks, such as the presence of a monster and/or beautiful maiden on an island, the inevitable survival of some of the ship’s passengers, and an ensuing change in both shipwrecked and native. The Tempest celebrates change, including Prospero and Alonso’s brotherly reconciliation, Ariel’s freedom, and the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand. Only Caliban, the “monstrous” son of Sycorax, arguably remains stagnant in his role as Prospero’s slave. Postcolonial critics, such as Aimé Césaire and Roberto Fernández Retamar, have frequently turned to this play as a paradigm for the colonial conflict; other works, such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), have also provided critics with such a model.
One can consider Matthew “Monk” Lewis’ poem “The Isle of Devils” (1827, 1834), which is in fact prefaced by an epigraph from The Tempest, as well in a discussion of postcolonial criticism. This poem, included in Lewis’ Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834), entertains distinct visions of colonial encounters and vague notions of geography and history, and freely rewrites maps and annals. Above all, it can be situated as an early nineteenth century work, drawing on contemporary concerns regarding hybridity and colonization, as well as the issue of slavery. Given Britain’s expansion in the Caribbean and the ensuing complications regarding the union of black and white, this theme emerges as a pertinent one that shadows this text. While the Journal itself has received critical attention of late, such as by D.L. Macdonald, Keith A. Sandiford, and Maja-Lisa von Sneidern, “The Isle of Devils” has not.
The poem centers on a shipwreck: Irza and her betrothed, her cousin Rosalvo, travel in the company of an abbot to Lisbon from Goa. As they pass by a beautiful island located off the coast of Africa, a sailor informs Irza that the place is the enchanted Isle of Devils, inhabited by a nameless “Fiend” or “Demon” who soon afterwards conjures up a storm and gleefully watches the ship break up and sink. After being washed ashore this island and threatened by evil dwarves, Irza unwillingly finds herself under the protection of the infatuated Fiend. The Fiend imprisons the swooning Irza in a luxurious cave that can be paralleled to a cave in a fairy tale (Terry xx). In due course of time Irza gives birth to a child whose “shaggy limbs, and eyes of sable fire,/Betray’d the crime, and claim’d its hellish sire!” (172). Adored by his father, the child disgusts his mother. Following a brief interlude marked by the appearance of Rosalvo and his ensuing slaughter by the Fiend, Irza lapses into feverish madness and wakes from it to find herself pregnant again, but this time the child resembles her, not the Fiend.
Irza assimilates into the island culture and even finds fleeting moments of happiness after the birth of her second child. The Fiend garnishes the cave where she resides with shells and stones and furs:
With many a verdant rush her couch was spread;
A gourd with blushing fruits was near her placed,
Whose scent and colour woo’d alike her taste;
And round her strewn there bloom’d unnumber’d flowers;
Charming her senses with aromatic powers.
This lifestyle soon ends, however: the chaperone abbot, who has survived the shipwreck, hears rumors of a “beautiful demon” that inhabits the island and returns in search of Irza. Torn between love for her younger child and the abbot’s declaration that the child is evil, Irza eventually decides to sail away with the abbot. Seeing his “wife” departing, the Fiend flings the younger child against the rocks and, clutching his firstborn, jumps to his death. The poem then shifts to Cintra, where Irza, now a nun, nurses others to health but suffers in agony herself: “[I]n other eyes she lights up joy, but ne’er/Those eyes of hers were seen a smile to wear” (182).
At first glance, this poem offers a straightforward reading of shipwreck and colonization, with such requisite elements as the remote island, beautiful maiden, and resident monster. The formula seems simple: the shipwrecked colonizer (Irza) escapes and the colonized (the Fiend) perishes alone on his island “nation” whose systems of governance and community are then destroyed. This paper investigates the dynamics of this colonial interchange and argues that the themes of fertility/barrenness, mothering/murder, colonizer/colonized, and poison/antidote/pharmakon underscore a reading of this poem. They offer a glimpse into the horrors not only of monsters, but of miscegenation, resulting in hybrid children, and the subversive power of the mother. This poem complicates the reader’s empathy, for neither colonizer nor colonized, who enact the various roles of rapist/victim and parent/murderer, completely sway the reader towards sympathizing with one or the other.
One can locate this darker subtext echoed in the circumstances of the composition of the piece. Lewis traveled to Jamaica in 1815-16 and 1817-18 for the express purpose of tending to the two sugar plantations and approximately 700 slaves he had inherited upon his father’s death in 1812. He found himself reeling from seasickness during his outbound voyage to Jamaica in 1816 when he composed “The Isle of Devils,” writing: “I take it for granted that the verses cannot be very good; but let them be ever so bad, I defy any one to be more sick while reading them than the author himself was while writing them” (159). “The Isle of Devils” is, Lewis informs the reader, a version of “an old Italian book, called ‘Il Palagio degli Incanti,’ in which it was related as a fact, and stated to be taken from the ‘Annals of Portugal,’ an historical work” (159). Lewis avers that he “will not vouch for the truth of it [the story] myself” and likewise apologizes for the bad quality of the verse, citing his extreme seasickness during the poem’s composition (159). Coleridge called it “a fever dream—horrible, without point or terror,” and Joseph Irwin, noting the “Gothicisms” of the poem, states that the poem is not related to either the style or the content of the rest of the Journal and “[p]erhaps it was truly an exercise to keep Lewis’s mind off his seasickness” (121).
The accounts of Lewis’ voyages to Jamaica in 1815-6 and 1817-8, as well as the poem, are recorded in his posthumously published Journal of a West India Proprietor, which contains boyish flashes of glee at the prospect of his Caribbean adventures. On his inbound voyage to that island in 1815, Lewis expressed consternation at “finding such a scarcity of monsters…. However, I am promised [by the captain], that as soon as we approach the islands, I shall have as many sharks as [my] heart can wish” (24-5). The child-like anticipation of seeing “monsters” calls attention to Lewis’ reputation as the Gothic author of The Monk (1796). Lewis made what would be his final trip to Jamaica in 1817, dying of yellow fever on the return voyage to England in 1818. Though Lewis had unsuccessfully tried to interest John Murray in publishing his journal after the first voyage, Murray eventually purchased the work from Lewis’s brother-in-law Sir Henry Lushington after the author’s death. Murray published the journal in 1834, the same year of the emancipation of slaves in British colonies (Peck 168). As Judith Terry notes in the introduction to her 1999 edition of the Journal, it met with positive reviews from John Gibson Lockhart and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but received limited notice at the time of publication (x).
Lewis’ journal, rich in its details of Creole society, addresses the author’s dilemma as both a self-proclaimed humanitarian bothered by the institution of slavery and as a plantation owner who profited financially from the slave labor. Lewis served in Parliament from 1796 to 1802 on a liberal abolitionist platform, but in his Journal nowhere advocates abolition and instead favors reform in the existing institution of slavery. The Journal describes at length the various reforms Lewis attempted to institute, as well as his perspectives on the female slave. Studying the Journal provides one avenue for approaching “The Isle of Devils,” especially with an eye towards Lewis’ attitudes towards the female slave.
Turning first to the poem, Lewis projects his Jamaican experience onto this fantastical African island which remains unnamed in the poem and its actual location is hazy, save for the fact that it lies off the coast of Africa. The island too falls between familiar, “civilized” Europe and mysterious, “pagan” Africa, and with the arrival of Irza contains elements of both cultures. In many respects, this borderland island demarcates the separation between cultures and emphasizes each one’s desire for control. Moreover, the island lies on the way from Goa to Portugal and bisects the trade route, positioned between wealth (Goa) and the desire for wealth (Portugal). The Goa-Portugal endpoints provide an outlying colonial model that brackets the poem, and midway between colony and motherland lies the island where the roles of colonizer and colonized become entangled. Irza eventually resides in Cintra, site of the 1808 Convention and Britain’s strategic capitulation to France, and thus may indicate a resolution not entirely in her—or Britain’s—best interests.
The island, caught as it is between the colony and motherland, also obfuscates the lines between black and white and colonizer and colonized, and this is most evident in the miscegenation that occurs. The architect of Irza’s fate, the Fiend, especially beckons identification, according to D.L. Macdonald, with the black Jamaican slave “as re-created by the guilty and fearful fantasy of a white slave-owner” who cannot survive without his master (Biography 192, 199). The Fiend commits heinous “racial crimes” in his murder of a white man, Rosalvo, and the rape(s) of a white woman, as well as his fathering of two mixed-race children. Lewis, Macdonald continues, “allegorize[d] his Jamaican experiences in terms of death because he thought Jamaica really was a deadly place, both for himself and for his slaves; and his Gothic imagination predisposed him to find the island deadly” (203).
If Lewis indeed equated the island and Jamaica with death, the first description of the Fiend only serves to reinforce that perception. He is the “master-fiend” of the island, and is:
Gigantic as the palm, black as the storm,
All shagged with hair, wild, strange in shape and show,
Bright wreaths of scarlet plumes his temples crowned,
And round his ankles, arms, and wrists were wound
Unnumbered glassy strings of crystals bright,
Corals, and shells, and berries red and white.
On her he gazed, and floods of sable fires
Rolled his huge eyes, and spoke his fierce desires[.]
The Fiend clearly is touched by Irza; he scares away the vicious dwarves that threaten her when she first washes ashore the island. Furthermore, he approaches her on bent knee and “kissed the earth” before her (169). The Fiend presents a conflicting image. On the one hand, he seems to resemble an African male in his described “black” and humanoid form, but he is also “shagged with hair.” His tender behavior towards Irza, while touching, has been prefaced however by his intentional sinking of the ship, celebrated in “Song of the Tempest-Fiend” in the poem, where he expresses “joy” and “laugh[s]” to see the catastrophe (166). Another contradiction emerges in his treatment of Irza once he has rescued her. He provides her with the aforementioned shelter, but rapes her while she is unconscious; he will repeat this act later in the poem.
In contrast, Irza’s utter purity receives ample mention in the outset of the poem:
Not fourteen years were Irza’s; nay, ‘tis true,
Most maids at twelve know more than Irza knew:
No amorous forms, by wanton art designed,
Had e’er inflamed her blood, or stained her mind:
No hint in books, no coarse or doubtful phrase
E’er bade her curious thought explore the maze
No glowing dream by memory’s pencil drawn
Had e’er profaned her sleep, and made her blush at dawn.
With flowers she decked the virgin mother’s shrine,
Nor guessed a wonder made that name divine.
Irza’s naïveté is extreme, for she not only has not seen any man save family members and monks, she also has not learned the story of the Annunciation that grounds her religion. Unquestionably she is sexually inexperienced and, with this emphasis on her virginity, she slips into the role of the Gothic maiden who must defend her virginity against male advances. “The Isle of Devils” does not contain the usual Gothic trappings of castles and ruins, but the sexual tension makes an appearance on that tropical locale as well.
If the Fiend does serve as a type of doctor to the pure Irza, healing her from the shipwreck, he simultaneously “harms” her by raping and impregnating her and, in keeping her in the cave, enslaving her. This also beckons a correlation with Lewis’ hardly unfounded fears of yellow fever that he expresses again and again in the Journal. Sickness overwhelms the poem and perhaps alludes to Lewis’ physical condition during composition when he sought to struggle with the “poison” of the rolling ocean. However, the Fiend does not only “heal” Irza but through his sexual advances enacts a change in her body. His masculine power, even though it appears in his dominion over the dwarves, who, as mentioned above, venerate him, is ultimately sexually limited in the poem. Lewis delicately refuses to depict the two rape scenes where Irza lies powerless and thereby he stunts the Fiend’s prowess. Instead, she literally wakes up pregnant. At one level this omission supports Macdonald’s claim that unlike Antonia in The Monk, Irza is not a “pornographic” figure since the reader does not see her acting sexually. When Irza conveniently swoons during both rapes, Lewis refuses to depict an alert and awake woman in the act of intercourse.
The non-sexualization of Irza simultaneously permits a more sympathetic view of her captor. Ironically, the monstrous act of rape humanizes the Fiend, for if Lewis does not reveal Irza as a sexual creature by metaphorically closing the reader’s eyes, neither does he sexualize the Fiend by sharing descriptions of his body. Without corresponding physical details and despite the birth of their children, both characters remain almost virginal because untouched by the reader’s gaze. Instead, Lewis emphasizes not the biologically driven sexual act but rather the womb, which unfailingly produces a child for each sexual encounter. Because of its astounding fertility and ability to merge two beings, the womb becomes a powerful organ that, with the creation of the children, somehow reconciles the seeming incompatibility of black and white and European and Other. This focus on the womb and the resulting children forces the reader to downplay, in a sense, the rape. However, there is something furtive about the coupling. While Irza and the Fiend may be rendered almost innocent because the reader cannot voyeuristically gaze upon them, the secrecy surrounding the sexual act(s) leads one to wonder why they could not take place when Irza is awake and, perhaps, what about this union is so potent that children result immediately.
Lewis certainly downplays any eroticism in the relationship between the Fiend and Irza, and emphasizes instead the element of pain, particularly on Irza’s part. For instance, the acts of giving birth lack detail, save for the emphasis on her agony: “Her curdling blood is fire, is ice by turns;/Her heart-strings crack!” (172). Irza’s breast-feeding of the child, after she “mourns to live, and prays to die,” does capture one’s attention (173). The child’s crying alerts Irza who averts her eyes and feeds the child, but she “shudder[s]” as “it drain’d her breast” (173). The Fiend witnesses this act and, “[S]natch’d it from her’s, and press’d it to his own” (174). We see here the mother suffering through childbirth and repulsed by her own child, the latter an act that will have consequences later in the poem, and the image of a “mother” will be called into question.
The Fiend’s male power, albeit tempered with quasi-maternal qualities, is contrasted with that of the other young male in the poem, Rosalvo, who serves as a type of foil. If the Fiend is physically impressive and wields influence on the island, Rosalvo is “secure from taint” and his upbringing is notable for its wholesomeness and asexuality: “[I]n liberal arts, in healthful manly sports,/In studies fit for councils, camps, and courts,/His moments found their full and best employ,/Nor left one leisure hour for guilty joy” (162). When he comes to rescue Irza, though, he is no match for the Fiend who quickly clubs him to death outside of Irza’s—and the reader’s—gaze and returns to her with a weapon “splash’d with brains! ‘twas wet with gore!” (175). The indigenous, African-featured male Fiend seems to play upon stereotypes of black male prowess in the poem as he can father children and decimate his competition. The white European male cannot defeat him. Curiously, the Fiend later buries Rosalvo and decorates the grave to appease Irza in yet another puzzling gesture (176-7).
The Fiend, then, straddles a line in that he heals and harms and sires and murders. One route for interpreting this tension is via the pharmakon. The pharmakon, as utilized by Plato in the Phaedrus (c. 370 B.C.E.), has a double meaning: it is oddly both poison and antidote. In the Phaedrus, the written speech of Lysias lures Socrates away from the city. Jacques Derrida later picks up this concept in Dissemination (1972) where he discusses its importance to language:
[t]he Socratic pharmakon also acts like a venom, like the bite of a poisonous snake. And Socrates’ bite is worse than a snake’s since its traces invade the soul. What Socrates’ words and the viper’s venom have in common, in any case, is their ability to penetrate and make off with the most concealed interiority of the body or soul….And when they [words] don’t act like the venom of a snake, Socrates’ pharmaceutical charms provoke a kind of narcosis, benumbing and paralyzing into aporia, like the touch of a sting ray (narke).
Derrida observes that the pharmakon itself cannot be separated out into “poison” or “antidote”—it is both simultaneously. The Fiend’s semen can be seen as a type of pharmakon—it is “good” insofar as it is life-giving, but “bad” because it “harms” Irza by impregnating her. This continues Derrida’s point about the pharmakon existing in “good” and “bad” writing as semen itself. The Fiend, though, is himself bereft not only of writing regardless of its “quality,” so key to Derrida’s theory, but, as Terry notes, also of language itself; he cannot even speak coherently and communicates through gestures and moans (xx). I would add to Terry’s analysis that we do see the Fiend casting a rather articulate spell in the “Song of the Tempest-Fiend” section of the poem; however, we do not see the Fiend capable of exchanging verbal communication with others. In the world of the island, it seems, physical expression is the only requirement for survival. In some instances, language on the island can even be deadly, as Rosalvo blithely singing about summer in Goa leads the Fiend directly to him for slaughter.
Although the Fiend’s hold on language may be tenuous, he can be viewed as a pharmakos, or sorcerer, thereby extending a Derridean analysis. The Fiend administers the poison/antidote in his semen, but at the same time serves as a scapegoat, following Derrida’s discussion. Derrida writes:
The ceremony of the pharmakos is thus played out on the boundary line between inside and outside, which it has as its function ceaselessly to trace and retrace....The origin of difference and division, the pharmakos represents evil both introjected and projected. Beneficial insofar as he cures—and for that, venerated and cared for—harmful insofar as he incarnates the powers of evil—and for that, feared and treated with caution. Alarming and calming. Sacred and accursed.
The Fiend is blamed for Irza’s situation at the end, for the “pollution” of her body with his seed. In fact, she becomes a rumored “demon” to passing sailors, prompting the abbot’s return. As will be discussed later, Irza functions as a scapegoat in the poem but also, by virtue of being a pharmakos, so does the Fiend. He exists as both someone “venerated” by the other inhabitants of the islands, e.g. the dwarves, and “feared” by Irza at first and finally by her rescuers. Finally, he bears the responsibility, or is scapegoated, for literally destroying the island’s future with the murder of the children and suicide. While the Fiend commits these acts and seems to draw one’s blame for his violence, one must also remain aware that Irza in fact is the one who initiated the chain of events. She too should share in this burden, even though it is tempting to depict her solely as the shipwrecked and raped victim in the situation.
One avenue for interpreting the ending to the poem, by seeing Irza as being equally to blame as the Fiend, may lie in examining Lewis’ Journal. In the Journal, Lewis discusses in several entries his dislike of miscegenation, and by extension the mulatto, as well as his confusion about the behavior of the female slaves on his plantations. Lewis’ own encounters with the mixing of races reveal, at least, his loathing of miscegenation. Like other planters, Lewis refused to condone sexual relations between blacks and whites on his plantations. In one journal entry Lewis’ negative view of the sexual contact between races appears with marked rage. Lewis fulminates over a mulatto woman who beats a black child who informs upon her mistress’ [the mulatta’s] theft of ducks. Lewis later buys the child after the court clears her owner from wrongdoing, noting the incident in his journal entry of May 1, 1818. In this entry Keith Sandiford avers, “Lewis reserves for this mulatto and her entire class a degree of rhetorical vehemence and moral revulsion nowhere heaped on any individual white owner in the Journal” and continues by stating that this is emblematic of Lewis’ efforts to alter the slave system (Sugar 164). The mulatta’s actions trigger Lewis’ moral anger, but her mixed-race status is connected to her behavior. Lewis struggles with an entire class of people who typify the suspended position between both races he so strives to locate and perhaps even experience, thereby “saving” him from the tough position of occupying the extremes of master and slave. The mulatto, not Lewis, can migrate (to a certain extent) between cultures and retains the “power” of the master, at least to the extent of owning slaves.
Regardless of this “flexibility,” the mulatto formed the subject of much speculation about fertility in Lewis’ lifetime, and this may contribute to Lewis’ perceptions and intrigue about the mulatto. As recently as 1774, after all, Edward Long argued in his History of Jamaica that mulattoes were barren, a theory that Charles White amplified in 1799 to claim that blacks and whites comprised separate species (Sollors 61). In literature, science, and society, mulattoes occupied (and still occupy) vexed positions, and one cannot consider Lewis’ beliefs about mulatto behavior to be unique or even unusual for his day. These medical claims certainly find little basis in fact, but rather reveal and reinforce contemporary “theories” surrounding the mulatto and serve to highlight profound cultural biases, especially in Jamaica and by extension on the island in Lewis’ poem.
If the mulatto frustrates Lewis, actions by his female slaves further unnerve him. In his study of Lewis’ journal, Keith Sandiford draws attention to a “secret” of the slave population: the alarmingly high infant death rate (“Slavery Sublime” 93). Lewis addresses the puzzling scenario, as he sees it, of his slave women’s proliferation of children but the steep infant death rate and notes, “I really believe that the negresses can produce children at pleasure; and where they are barren, it is just as hens will frequently not lay eggs on shipboard, because they do not like their situation” (54, also qtd. in “Slavery Sublime” 93). Sandiford proposes that Lewis does not realize—or cannot bring himself to admit to knowing in his journal—that the infanticides are deliberate acts of resistance on the part of the mothers. They cannot bring themselves to condemn their children to a life of slavery and therefore sublimate their own needs and desires before what they perceive as a higher purpose: ending slavery (93-4).
If Lewis cannot fully understand and/or may fail to vocalize the female experience, it marks his incomplete comprehension of the slave culture, especially the female slave culture. Given the economic circumstances in which Lewis finds himself, he turns instead to efforts at slavery reform not, at this later point in his life, slave abolition. Lewis’ unease as a colonial and a slave owner, as well as an abolitionist and anti-abolitionist, feeds the sense of “suspension” between social roles (Von Sneidern 76-7). The female slave in particular preys upon Lewis’ mind; he is especially concerned with his female slaves’ production of children. Lewis even goes so far as to present gifts to slave women who bear children and extends the period of time they can nurse their children, all in efforts to combat the child morality rate (Von Sneidern 78-9). These various measures attest not only to Lewis’ concern for his female slaves, but also to his struggle to find what “works” for them.
One can add that it is precisely this focus on the production of children which leads to his crafting of the Fiend’s child murders. The Fiend has not been threatened with slavery at the conclusion of the poem, but he seems to react from his grief at seeing Irza depart. Similar to the slave women who do not wish to condemn their children to the realities of life as slaves, such as being separated from one or both parents, the Fiend is unwilling to stay on the island without Irza and does not want his children to live without a mother. Physical expression, not language, is the Fiend’s means of communication, and these acts convey his grief. In the poem, the narrator “interprets” the Fiend’s behavior for the reader:
‘Look! look!’ he seem’d to say, with action wild,
‘Look, mother, look! this babe is still your child!
With him as me all social bonds you break,
Scorn’d and detested for his father’s sake:
My love, my service only wrought disdain,
And nature fed his heart from yours in vain!
Then go, Ingrate, far o’er the ocean go,
Consign your friend, your child to endless woe!
Renounce us! hate us! pleased, your course pursue,
And break their hearts who lived alone for you!’
Such were his thoughts, though nature speech denied.
Painful thought it may be to visualize, this act of murder is the Fiend’s way of communicating his love.
The Fiend, who already has embodied numerous contradictions, can be seen as a true “monster” here in his actions. However, he serves as the scapegoat for a situation that he is not solely responsible for creating, and one can call the role of Irza into question. Irza’s gamut of emotions towards her own mulatto or hybrid children in particular emerges. At times she exhibits an intense hatred towards her elder child, who resembles his father, on other occasions extending profound love for the younger, who resembles her. With the birth of the elder child, Irza in fact becomes the “monster,” for she refuses to care for her son and the father becomes the child’s caretaker. The “abnormal” production of the womb results in an additional anomaly: a mother who has no maternal feelings toward her child. As has been mentioned earlier, Irza dislikes feeding her firstborn, and the Fiend steps in as a maternal figure. The monstrous behavior of the human and the human behavior of the monster are striking. Given these circumstances, the female and her capacity for reproduction, prompted by the Fiend’s pharmakon, anchor the tale and lead to the unleashing of a series of catastrophic events.
The island’s family seems to be finally on the verge of peace, though, until the abbot arrives and sways Irza back towards Christianity and her European culture. Irza’s decision results in the Fiend’s suicide and child murders. Although she pleads with the chaperone abbot to allow her take her second son with her, expressing concern that “her flight might quite destroy her child,” he adamantly refuses, calling the child a “brat” and implying that he is a descendant of Satan (180). Irza is conflicted with her decision to depart; we learn “…then in Irza’s soul/What various passions raged, and mock’d control!/Now how she mourn’d, now how she wept for joy,/How loathed the sire, and how adored the boy!” (180). She is evidently torn between a maternal love for one child and hatred for the other and her “husband.” This further comes to light after the Fiend bashes the second son’s head in with rocks and she reacts: “Loud shrieks the mother! changed to stone she stands,/And silent lifts to heav’n her clay-cold hands:/Then, sinking down, stretch’d on the deck she lies,/Hid her pale face, and closed her aching eyes” (181).
Irza’s grief at the death of her second son is evident, but there is no mention of her reaction at the suicide of the Fiend and murder of the firstborn; the section ends with the Fiend leaping into the sea and then shifts to Cintra. Although the Fiend literally murders both children, Irza bears her share of responsibility: she turns her back on her own children, an echo of her early rejection of her firstborn. With this gesture, Irza becomes an agent of destruction and an abettor in a crime. Tellingly, after this experience the reader—and Irza—are whisked off the island and the reader learns nothing further of her immediate reaction to the deaths. Because of the harrowing experiences of shipwreck, rape, and eventual murder, Irza cannot verbally communicate her experience when incarcerated in the nunnery, saying only, “‘Pray for a demon’s wife!’” to her listeners (182). Like her “husband,” Irza now lacks language and can only express herself through prayers and gestures, such as assisting the sick. Nuns pledge themselves as brides of Christ, but Irza, scarred by her experience, admits of her “bigamy” by confessing her other husband, the Fiend.
With echoes of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, the poem closes on a moral note, repeating injunctions to “[P]ray, mortals, pray” (183). The narrator reassures the reader that, given Irza’s earthly suffering, she can anticipate “a rich reward” in heaven (183). Nevertheless, she must suffer as the scapegoat on earth, awash with the violence of the Island experience; she, as well as the Fiend, both suffer as scapegoats but in different scenarios. Instead of providing the reader with stock images of a victim and an aggressor, Lewis presents these figures as conflicted and contradictory individuals. The Fiend is both rapist and victim, and Irza is a pure virgin who also acts as a destructive colonizer.
The poem’s emphasis upon religion that we see at the outset adds to this confusion, as does the conclusion with the “rescue” by the friar, which situates Irza as a failed missionary of sorts. She lands on the island an inexperienced girl who at various junctures turns to religion. She attempts to pray her rosary when accosted by the dwarves (170), is concerned when the Fiend first places her in the bower that he is there to “shake her faith, and steal her soul from heaven” (172), reacts upon giving birth to her firstborn by crying “‘[G]uard me, all blessed saints!’” (172), and after Rosalvo’s death can only mutter “with idiot glee,/’Ave Maria! Benedicte!’” (176). Irza’s religion is repeatedly reinforced, then, but she only turns to it as a recourse; she does not attempt to use it to “convert” the Fiend. She does, however, embrace it wholeheartedly at the end of the poem, after departing from the island. Irza later repents for her island experience by joining the convent, but does she do so because of her sexual relations with the Fiend, however unwilling on her part she may have been, or her part in the child murders? Or both?
The bloodshed “cleanses” the island, removing all trace of its indigenous inhabitant. With the Fiend gone, Europeans could colonize the island themselves if they so choose and Irza, now a “clean” woman, can wed Jesus. She cannot marry a man, after all: her womb, “contaminated” by the Fiend’s semen/pharmakon, is at risk of bringing another hybrid into the world. An ambiguity persists in one reading of this “solution” and Lewis refuses to make clear who “wins” in the poem, and whether the abbot—and Irza—should be praised or vilified.
In this reading, Irza serves as a body and her womb becomes a place of union where biology overrules dogma, desire, and nationality. She remains passive in a pastiche of sexually charged scenes in spaces with sharply delineated gender distinctions although interspersed with violent transitions. On board the ship as Rosalvo’s betrothed, in the grotto as the Fiend’s wife, and in the convent as a bride of Christ, Irza remains passive, which conceals her potential for destruction. Coleridge insinuates that the horrific plot results from Lewis’ “fever dream” and the metaphors of illness and nausea, and their connection to the pharmakon, seep into the poem. The illness of the poet’s seasick body parallels the pregnant swelling of Irza’s as they (dis)embody their experiences with the unfamiliar culture. The imposition of religion into the core of “The Isle of Devils” amplifies the theme of racial mixing by threatening eternal consequences and requiring a mother to sacrifice her own children because of their hybridity and blaming her as much as the colonized for their very existence.
Irza both fails and succeeds in the colonial endeavor by colonizing and becoming colonized. She is the white colonizer of the Fiend’s island and paves the way for European settlement, and is an abettor in the creation of a new order off the coast of Africa, uniting black, white, East, and West through a woman’s body and absorbs the pharmakon. Yet, she is also the colonized wife of the Fiend, as she reminds her listeners when she pleads “‘[P]ray for a demon’s wife!’” The appearance of a female on the island galvanizes an entire sequence of events, contaminating and destroying the colony. Not only does colonization fail on the island, but it does so at the expense of the native population, and the murders eradicate the island’s youngest generation. The surviving transgressor, Irza, finds herself without words to describe what she has done, and no proof of it exists save the re-telling of a tale to strangers and in the inscription of it in the poem. Her “crime” centers on her lack of maternal love; she chooses to abandon her children. “The Isle of Devils” at first glance may seem to be a rehashed Gothic tale, but underneath it are emphases on sexual drives and a splitting of binaries.
In the “The Isle of Devils,” with the loss of the offspring the island’s future wanes and without the mixing of cultures, the colony cannot exist. Lewis envisions a world and colony that does not fall on any historical map. This text purports to end on an acceptable note: Irza escapes and the Fiend suffers and perishes. Despite this apparent victory for the West, Irza exacts her victory at a terrible cost. Finally, the reader is left without guidance about who to pity in this situation. Lewis’ Journal offers his own perspectives on the slave culture and miscegenation, both of which disturbed him yet directly contributed to his economic well-being. Perhaps, then, Lewis’ ambivalence carries through in this “fever dream” of a poem, to cite Coleridge.
As demonstrated by Irza, the womb exists as a scary, fertile place that can successfully unite black and white, male and female, and colonizer and colonized. Should the womb breed, disaster erupts, as on Lewis’ island. The poem closes with explicit mention of the female’s wrongdoing and responsibility for death when, as a mother, she should bring life. This perhaps signals a growing concern for the burgeoning role of empire in the nineteenth century, and the place and purpose of the individual in this time of revolutionary change. Lewis and his characters not only grapple with the complexities of colonization, but also wrestle with the potential import of these physically changing borders for the resident societies—and address the difficulty in populating “their” land with the “right” individuals. Despite the fact that they, like Gonzalo in The Tempest, survive shipwrecks and harrowing experiences at sea, the islands they wash up upon, bereft of reconciliations, become barren worlds.
Lisa Nevárez is an Associate Professor of English at Siena College. She holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Vanderbilt University.
See, for instance, the work of Peter Hulme and Edward W. Said.
Mireille Magnier provides a brief account of the Lewis family’s history in Jamaica (109-16). Louis Peck’s biography of Lewis, A Life of Matthew G. Lewis, provides extensive details as does Joseph J. Irwin’s M.G. “Monk” Lewis as well as D.L. Macdonald’s biography.
The full title is Del Palagio degl’incanti et delle grande maraviglie degli Spiriti et ditutta la natura, da Strozzi Cicogna and it was published in Vicenza in 1605.
Cited in Peck 170 as appearing in Table Talk VI, 507.
Von Sneidern discusses the reception of the Journal as well, focusing on the significance of the Journal’s post-emancipation publication; see 65-6.
On August 30, 1808, during the Peninsular War, the British signed a treaty allowing the defeated French to retreat from Portugal and the British public reacted negatively to this. Wordsworth and Byron, for instance, expressed their disappointment at the treaty.
One such example that comes to mind is Isabella in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), who must fend off the advances of her former father-in-law-to-be, Manfred.
See Macdonald’s analysis in both “The Erotic Sublime: The Marvellous in The Monk” and the Biography (232 n. 1).
In An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables, and From the Former to the Latter; see Sollors 431 n. 51.
Von Sneidern further suggests that Lewis displaces his guilt for the female slave’s unhappiness—and thus her infanticidal behavior—upon the colonial bookkeeper. A series of white bookkeepers, generally English immigrants and considered as occupying the dregs of Jamaican society, experience Lewis’ wrath when he accuses them of mistreating the female slaves. The “twisted sentiment,” seemingly comprised mostly of guilt, towards the infanticides that Von Sneidern locates in Lewis’ diary informs her discussion of Lewis’ repeated attempts to come to terms with his role as hated slave owner and his desire to be considered a benevolent “ruler” (79).
Lewis, Matthew Gregory. Journal of a West India Proprietor. Ed. Judith Terry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Macdonald, D.L. “The Isle of Devils: the Jamaican journal of M.G. Lewis.” Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Eds. Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Magnier, Mireille. “Lewis, planteur aux indes occidentales.” Mythes, croyances et religions dans le monde anglo-saxon 4 (1986): 109-16.
Sandiford, Keith A. “‘Monk’ Lewis and the Slavery Sublime: The Agon of Romantic Desire in the Journal.” Essays in Literature 23:1 (1996): 84-98.
Sandiford, Keith A. The Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.