MONK LEWIS AND HIS COTERIE (1851)
DAVID MACBETH MOIR (17981851)
To the artistic artificial school of Darwin, Seward, Hayley, and the Della Cruscans, may be said to have succeeded the purely romantic one of which Mathew Gregory Lewis ought to be set down as the leader, and John Leyden, Walter Scott, Coleridge, Southey, James Hogg, Mrs Radcliffe, Anna Maria Porter, and Anne Bannerman, as the chief disciples. The germ of their tenets must be traced back to the North, rather than to the ballads and romances of Percy, Ritson, and Ellis; and their demonology throughout savours much more of the Teutonic than either the Saxon or Celtic. The unsettling of men’s minds by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, among the French and the new order of things created by the dangerous philosophising of the Academicians, and by Kant, Schelling, and the German transcendentalists combined to bring about a new era, in which were rekindled all the magical and mystic reminiscences of the dark ages. Horace Walpole had written his Castle of Otranto merely as a burlesque; but hitting the tone of the day, it had been read and relished as an admirable transcript of feudal times and Gothic manners; and his success taught Mrs Radcliffe and others to harp and far from unpleasantly on the same string. Clarissa Harlowe and Pamela quietly located on the book-shelves, had for a while their ‘virtue unrewarded,’ even by a reading; and nothing went down but Udolphos and Romances of the Forest, Sicilian Bravos, and Legends of the Hartz Mountains; corridors and daggers, moonlight and murdering, ruined castles and sheeted spectres, gauntleted knights and imprisoned damsels.
Three men of peculiar, two of them, indeed, of great imaginative strength at this time started up Godwin, Coleridge, and Lewis; but it is with the last of them only that I have at present to do. As a man of truly original powers, M. G. Lewis was far behind either Godwin or Coleridge, and stood much on the level of his successor Maturin; but what his imagination lacked in grandeur, was made up by energy: he was a high-priest of the intense school. Monstrous and absurd, in many things, as were the writings of Lewis, no one could say that they were deficient in interest. Truth and nature, to be sure, he held utterly at arm’s-length; but, instead, he had a life-in-death vigour, a spasmodic energy, which answered well for all purposes of astonishment. He wrote of demons, ghouls, ghosts, vampires, and disembodied spirits of every kind, as if they were the common machinery of society. A skeleton ‘in complete steel,’ or the spectre of ‘a bleeding nun,’ was ever at hand, on emergencies; and wood-demons, fire-kings, and water-sprites, gave a filip to the external scenery. His Monk, that strange and extramundane production, made the reader ‘sup so full of horrors,’ that mothers were obliged to lock it up from their sickly and sentimental daughters more especially as its morale was not of the choicest; and when Lewis took a leap from the closet to the stage, his power was equally felt. I yet remember, when a boy, trembling in the very theatre at the scene in The Castle Spectre which brings the murdered maiden on the stage; and if productions are to be judged by their effect, that drama, like The Robbers of Schiller, has left on facile imaginations traces never to be obliterated. The Tales of Wonder, and the Tales of Terror, succeeded; some of them stories of amazing vigour wild, extravagant, unnatural but withal highly readable, nay, occasionally of enchaining interest. In spirit Lewis was a thorough convert to the raw-head-and-bloody-bones and the trap-door German school; and his thoughts were ever away amid the Hartz Mountains, seeing ‘more spirits than vast hell could hold.’ His every night was Hallowe’en, or a Walpurgis Night; and he is said to have become, in his later years, the dupe of his own early over-excited feelings, and as sincere a convert to a frequent infringement of the established laws of physics, as Mrs Crowe in her Night Side of Nature, or the Baron von Reichenbach himself, with his Odylie light. He conjured up ghosts to affright others, and came to be haunted by them himself a most natural retribution.
Most of the writers of the Tales of Wonder were young men of enthusiastic temperament, panting for distinction; and in their contributions they gave vivid indications of what, in maturer years, was to accomplish greater and better things. Lewis himself had an exquisite ear for versification, as demonstrated in his ‘Durandarte,’ and ‘Alonzo the Brave,’ of which latter, ‘The Fire-King’ of Smith, in The Rejected Addresses, was a legitimate and scarcely extravagant burlesque. In ‘The Eve of St John,’ and ‘Glenfinlas,’ Walter Scott exhibited the glorious dawn of that day, whose transcendant meridian was to irradiate the world in ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel,’ in ‘Marmion,’ and in ‘The Lady of the Lake.’ Leyden poured out his whole rough strength in ‘Lord Soulis’ and ‘The Mermaid of Coryvreckan.’ Southey forestalled his ‘Madoc’ and ‘Roderick’ in ‘Mary, the Maid of the Inn,’ ‘Donica,’ ‘Rudiger,’ ‘The Old Woman of Berkeley,’ and ‘Lord William,’ The last thoroughly exquisite. While, although published elsewhere, Coleridge displayed wild and wondrous fruits from the same Hesperides in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ and ‘Tales of the Dark Ladie,’ ‘Christabel,’ and ‘Kubla Khan.’
I repeat, however, that Lewis was a man rather of enthusiastic temperament than of high and sustained imagination. He could not face the sunlight and the clear blue sky; he required clouds and tempest, a howling wind and a troubled sea. He was what the vulture is to the eagle, what the leopard is to the lion, what the scene-painter is to the artist. His plays are what melodramas are to tragedy; and the terrors of his poetry trench as much on the burlesque as on the sublime; yet so great were the effects he produced, more especially in his prose romances, and so unbounded was their popularity, that the mighty Minstrel [i.e. Walter Scott], then a young man, confessed to have looked up to him with an admiration bordering on awe, and even deferentially submitted to be schooled by him in the art of versification.
Like the school of Darwin, that of Lewis was destined to have a day fully as remarkable for its brevity as its brightness. The readers of The Feudal Tyrants, The Monk, The Tales of Terror, The Isle of Devils, and The Castle Spectre, became surfeited with perpetually dining on high-spiced curries, and began to long for a little ‘plain potato and salt.’ His spirit-world was neither the spirit-world of Milton in his Paradise Lost and his Comus; nor of Shakespeare in his Hamlet and Macbeth; nor of Spenser in his Faery Queen. It was not the spirit-world of the Greek drama, which Æschylus and Euripides never ventured into, save in search of an avenging Nemesis, worthy of some awful occasion transcendent misery, or transcendent guilt. On the contrary, the exceptions, with Lewis, were all on the other side, and were made the rule. Every one is bamboozled about the nature of every thing he either hears or sees. What we take for a knight, may be the foul fiend in incognito. Every third house is haunted; every second old woman is a witch; each tree has an owl; the moon is in conspiracy with the stars to blight the earth, on which they shed a malign influence; and thunder is ever at hand, with copious streams of blue zig-zag lightning. The noises on the wind are the howling of spirits; the skeleton of a murderer dangles in chains at every cross-road; very many chambers are particularly dark, grotesquely wainscotted, have secret doors, and are disturbed by the death-tick; while all the ponderous mail-studded gates hideously creak on their rusty hinges. In short, man, instead of being a prosaic payer of poor-rates and property-tax, is made to inhabit a land of enchantments; where ogres tyrannise in castles, and dragons spout fire in caves; and where all the accredited Aristotelian elements fire, air, earth, and water are continually reverberating to each other
The hideousness, the monstrosity, the exaggeration of this style of writing, combining and amalgamating with the perturbed temper of the times, gave it an acceptability and a fascination which it probably would not have otherwise acquired. At its acme it caught hold also of our most powerful contemporary prose, in the St Leon of Godwin; it was reflected in the Canterbury Tales of Sophia and Harriet Lee, in the Frankenstein of Mrs Shelley, and the Melmoth of Maturin, and died away into a gentler and more graceful spirituality in the Rip Van Winkle and Headless Hessian of Washington Irving, the Vanderdecken’s Message Home of John Howison, and The Metempsychosis of Robert Macnish. As the sacrifices of the high-priest ceased to ascend, the worshippers gradually deserted the mouldy shrine: the younger devotees Scot, Southey, Coleridge, and Leyden took, in the maturity of intellect, to higher and more legitimate courses forsook the melodrama for veritable tragedy and comedy, and, doffing the masquers’ robes, endeavoured ‘to look melancholy like gentlemen.’ To accelerate their flight from this debateable land, the bow of ridicule was also bent against them. Jeffrey let fly a few sharp arrows; and the Water Fiends of George Colman the younger, as well as the burlesques of Horace Smith, will long be remembered as exquisite pleasantries.
‘Black spirits and white,
Blue spirits and grey
Mingle, mingle, mingle,
Ye that mingle may!’
[SOURCE: David Macbeth Moir, Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1851), pp. 17&150;22]
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