Friday, October 5, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: Looking for "Lenore" (or, four ways of looking at a spectre bridegroom)

From this 1796 edition
Today's post finds us in the late eighteenth century again - but in Germany, not Scotland, though we'll end up there again, as well as across the Atlantic.

In 1773, Gottfried August Bürger published a ballad entitled "Lenore" - a sensational tale, perfect for Halloween, in which, as the above illustration suggests, a deceased lover comes back from the dead to carry his betrothed - the titular "Lenore" - to the grave. It took a while to filter through into British literary culture. But once it did, its influence was profound, stimulating the vogue for the Germanic, the Gothic and the ballad. As Susanne Stark writes: "between 1790 and 1892 there had been no less than thirty English translations by various hands [...] Bürger's poem enjoyed continued popularity throughout the century."

In this post, I want to trace a line of influence through just four of them, in a way that links together a few points of personal interest at the moment. As a case in point, this story begins in Norwich - the city where I grew up (and am still employed). The first English translation of "Lenore" was produced by William Taylor, one of a number of significant literary figures based in Norfolk at the turn of the nineteenth century. He produced his version of the poem - "Ellenore" - in 1790, though it wasn't published until 1796 in The Monthly Magazine. The text of his translation is available in Taylor's Historic Survey of German Poetry (1830), here. Taylor was struck by the similarity between Bürger's poem and a traditional British ballad, "The Suffolk Miracle" - which, in at least in one of its versions, narrated here by ballad collector Francis James Child, revolves around Halloween and the kind of customs outlined by Robert Burns, featured in my last post.

Enter Walter Scott. In 1793 or 1794 - Scott's unclear about the date in his "Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad" (c.1830) - the writer Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld visited Edinburgh, and read her friend Taylor's unpublished "Ellenore" to a literary gathering. Scott was out of town at the time, but as he explains:

So in turn, Scott produced his own version of the ballad - "William and Helen". Scott's poem has a convoluted publishing history, usefully outlined here, but it is available in this 1807 edition. It's worth noting, too, that it was this work that introduced Scott to the attention of Matthew "Monk" Lewis - but that's a different story. 

Instead, we'll follow the path that leads us across the Atlantic. It was probably through his personal relationship with Scott that Bürger's poem became known to Washington Irving. His short story "The Spectre Bridegroom", part of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (c.1820), was a playful reworking of "Lenore", ironically referencing the poem at certain moments before leading the reader to a happy ending.

And from Irving, we arrive at the final point in this journey. In June 1843, Alexander H. Everett published a new translation of "Lenore" in The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review (June 1843), borrowing the title used by his friend Washington Irving. His "Spectre Bridegroom" is available here. Many decades after its first publication, Everett still felt moved to declare Bürger's poem "the masterpiece of ballads. No composition of the kind in the German, or perhaps any other language, can be compared with it for effect." So whichever version you choose, reading "Lenore" this Halloween will put you in touch with a poem that travelled very widely through nineteenth century literary cultures.

Further reading: Jack Voller describes this 1825 short story from Charles Maturin, "Leixlip Castle", as "a variation on that old ballad standby, the spectre bridegroom" - plus, it also revolves around Halloween love-spells (and, in this reader's opinion, is genuinely unsettling, so proceed with caution...).

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