TALES OF TERROR (1801)
MATTHEW GREGORY LEWIS (attrib.) (17751818)
A major feature of both Gothic and Romantic poetry was the use of ‘German’ and ‘Old English’ folk tales and the recreation of the ancient ballad tradition. Tales of Terror and Tales of Wonder, to which Sir Walter Scott and well as Lewis contributed, were extremely popular. The Tales of Terror consist mostly of Spanish, Scottish, Swedish and Welsh ballads, many imitating and dedicated to M.G. Lewis, some attributed to him. It is worth listing the titles to illustrate the taste of the times: The Stranger; Hrim Thor, or the Winter-King; The Wolf-King, or Little Red-riding-hood; The Wanderer of the Wold; Gonzalvo; Albert of Werdendorff, or the Midnight Embrace; The Maid of Donalblayne; The Pilgrim of Valencia; The Grey Friar of Winton, or the Death of King Rufus; Grim, King of the Ghosts, or the Dance of Death; Osric and Ella; Martel, or the Conqueror’s Return; Ellen of Eglantine; The Black Canon of Elmham, or Saint Edmond’s Eve; The Scullion-Sprite, or the Garret-Goblin; The Troubadour, or Lady Alice’s Bower; The Sprite of the Glen; The House upon the Heath; The Mud-King, or Smedley’s Ghost; The Abbot of Leiston. Rather than include them here like all folk songs, they are interminable I have selected the prefatory remarks, in which Lewis defends the genre.
WHAT, scribble tales? Oh! cease to play the fool!
Christmas is past, and children gone to school;
E’en active Harlequin abash’d retired,
Neglected witches quench the cauldron’s fires,
Whilst fairy phantoms vanish swift away,
And sense and nature reassume their sway.
What gain, what pleasure, can your labours crown?
A nurs’ry’s praise shall be your best renown;
Each feeble tale ingloriously expire,
A gossip’s story at a winter’s fire!
Oh! cease this rage, this misapplied abuse,
Satire gives weapons for a nobler use;
Why draw your sword against my harmless quill,
And strive in vain a ghostly muse to kill?
That task is ours: if I can augur well,
Each day grows weaker her unheeded spell,
Her eager votaries shall fix her doom,
And lay her spirit in Oblivion’s tomb.
Yes! thus I oft my drooping hopes revive,
Prepost’rous births are seldom known to thrive;
These scribblers soon shall mourn their useless pains,
And weep the short-lived product of their brains,
These active panders to perverted taste
Shall mar their purpose by too anxious haste.
As earthquakes nature’s harmony restore,
And air grows purer in the tempest’s roar,
So the strange workings of a monstrous mind
Will quickly fade, and leave no trace behind;
Like brilliant bubbles, glitter for a day,
Till, swoll’n too big, they burst, and pass away.
We need not call ethereal spirits down
To rouse the torpid feelings of the town;
Or bid the dead their ghastly forms uprear,
To freeze some silly female breast with fear;
No &150; I have hopes you’ll find this rage decreas’d,
And send a dish too much to Terror’s feast;
The vicious taste, with such a rich supply
Quite surfeited, ‘will sicken, and so die.’
My friend, believe me, with indifferent view
I mark opinion’s ever-varying hue,
Let tasteless fashion guide the public heart,
And, without feeling, scan the poet’s art.
Fashion! dread name in criticism’s field,
Before whose sway both sense and judgement yield,
Whether she loves to hear, ‘midst deserts bleak,
The untaught savage moral axioms speak;
O’er modern, six weeks, epic strains to dose,
To sigh in sonnets, or give wings to prose;
Or bids the bard, by leaden rules confined,
To freeze the bosom, and confuse the mind,
While feeling stagnates in the drawler’s veins,
And Fancy’s fetter’d in didactic chains;
Or rouses the dull German’s gloomy soul,
And Pity leaves for Horror’s wild controul,
Pouring warm tears for visionary crimes,
And softening sins to mend these moral times;
It boots not me my taste is still my own,
Nor heeds the gale by wavering fashion blown.
My mind unalter’d views, with fix’d delight,
The wreck of learning snatch’d from Gothic night;
Chang’d by no time, unsettled by no place,
It feels the Grecian fire, the Roman grace;
Exulting marks the flame of ancient days,
In Britain with triumphant brightness blaze!
Yet still the soul for various pleasure form’d,
By Pity melted, and by Terror storm’d,
Loves to roam largely through each distant clime,
And ‘leap the flaming bounds of space and time!’
The mental eye, by constant lustre tires,
Forsakes, fatigued, the object it admires,
And, as it scans each various nation’s doom,
From classic brightness turns to Gothic gloom.
Oh! it breathes awe and rapture o’er the soul
To mark the surge in wild confusion roll,
And when the forest groans, and tempest lours,
To wake Imagination’s darkest powers!
How throbs the breast with terror and delight,
Fill’d with rude scenes of Europe’s barbarous night!
When restless war with papal craft combined,
To shut each softening ray from lost mankind;
When nought by Error’s fatal light was shown,
And taste and science were alike unknown;
To mark the soul, benumb’d its active powers,
Chain’d at the foot of superstition’s towers;
To view the pale-eyed maid in penance pine,
To watch the votary at the sainted shrine;
And, while o’er blasted heaths the night-storm raves,
To hear the wizzard wake the slumb’ring graves;
To view war’s glitt’ring front, the trophied field,
The hallow’d banner, and the red-cross shield;
The tourney’s knights, the tyrant baron’s crimes,
‘Pomp, pride, and circumstance,’ of feudal times!
Th’ enraptured mind with fancy loves to toil
O’er rugged Scandinavia’s martial soil;
With eager joy the ‘venturous spirit goes
O’er Morven’s mountains, and through Lapland’s snows;
Sees barbarous chiefs in fierce contention fall,
And views the blood-stain’d feasts of Odin’s hall;
Hears Ossian’s harp resound the deeds of war,
While each grey soldier glories in his scar;
Now marks the wand’ring ghost, at night’s dull noon,
Howl out its woes beneath the silent moon;
Sees Danish pirates plough th’ insulted main,
Whilst Rapin’s outcry shakes the sacred fane;
Observes the Saxon baron’s sullen state,
Where rival pride enkindles savage hate;
Each sound, each sight, the spell-bound sense appalls
Amid some lonely abbey’s ivied walls!
The night-shriek loud, wan ghost, and dungeon damp,
The midnight cloister, and the glimm’ring lamp,
The pale procession fading on the sight,
The flaming tapers, and the chaunted rite,
Rouse, in the trembling breast, delightful dreams,
And steep each feeling in romance’s streams!
Streams which afar in restless grandeur roll,
And burst tremendous on the wond’ring soul!
Now gliding smooth, now lash’d by magic storms,
Lifting to light a thousand shapeless forms;
A vapourous glory floats each wave around,
The dashing waters breathe a mournful sound,
Pale Terror trembling guards the fountain’s head,
And rouses Fancy on her wakeful bed;
‘From realms of viewless spirits tears the veil,
‘And half reveals the unutterable tale!’
March 1, 1801.
[SOURCE: Tales of Terror with An Introductory Dialogue, 2nd edn (London: Printed for L. Bell by Bulmer & Co., 1808), pp. 17]
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