An Apology for Tales of Terror








       Table of Contents


Text of the Poems




Sir Walter Scott, engraved by James Heath after James Saxon

James Saxon’s Portrait of Walter Scott (1805)





Textual History



The Scottish-German Connection



Walter Scott and M.G. Lewis


I. Textual History

   In the early spring of 1798, William Erskine met M.G. Lewis, author of the popular and notorious Gothic novel The Monk (1796), and showed him two poems from his friend, Walter Scott, translations of Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenore” (entitled by Scott “William and Helen”) and “Der Wilde Jäger” (“The Chase”). Impressed by these ballads, Lewis invited Scott to contribute to his collection of supernaturalist ballads, originally planned to be entitled “Tales of Terror.” This arrangement led to a period of close collaboration between Scott and Lewis that is detailed in eleven letters from Lewis to Scott from June 1798 to May 1800 and, retrospectively, in Scott’s “Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballads” (1830).  [For more on what Scott regarded as his apprenticeship with Lewis, see Section III of this Introduction.] In the fall of 1799, Scott, frustrated with delays in the publication of Lewis’s collection, met with his old school friend James Ballantyne and devised a plan that would lead to the limited publication of An Apology for Tales of Terror. J.G. Lockhart’s Life of Scott tells the story of this meeting, which led to Scott’s long professional relationship with Ballantyne, the printer of most of Scott’s voluminous literary output:


Mr. Ballantyne had not been successful in his attempts to establish himself in that branch of the law, and was now the printer and editor of a weekly newspaper in his native town. He called at Rosebank one morning, and requested his old acquaintance to supply a few paragraphs on some legal question of the day for his Kelso Mail. Scott complied; and carrying his article himself to the printing-office, took with him also some of his recent pieces, designed to appear in Lewis’s Collection. With these, especially, as his Memorandum says, the “Morlachian fragment after Goethe,” [1] Ballantyne was charmed, and he expressed his regret that Lewis's book was so long in appearing. Scott talked of Lewis with rapture; and, after reciting some of his stanzas, James Ballantyne, photogravure after unknown artistsaid “I ought to apologise to you for having troubled you with anything of my own when I had things like this for your ear.” “I felt at once,” says Ballantyne, “that his own verses were far above what Lewis could ever do, and though, when I said this, he dissented, yet he seemed pleased with the warmth of my approbation.” At parting, Scott threw out a casual observation, that he wondered his old friend did not try to get some little booksellers’ work, “to keep his types in play during the rest of the week.” Ballantyne answered, that such an idea had not before occurred to him—that he had no acquaintance with the Edinburgh “trade;” but, if he had, his types were good, and he thought he could afford to work more cheaply than town-printers. Scott, “with his good humoured smile,” said, “You had better try what you can do. You have been praising my little ballads; suppose you print off a dozen copies or so of as many as will make a pamphlet, sufficient to let my Edinburgh acquaintances judge of your skill for themselves.” Ballantyne assented; and I believe exactly twelve copies [2] of William and Ellen, The Fire-King, [3]  The Chase, and a few more of those pieces, were thrown off accordingly, with the title (alluding to the long delay of Lewis's Collection) of  “Apology for Tales of Terror—1799.” This first specimen of a press, afterwards so celebrated, pleased Scott; and he said to Ballantyne “I have been for years collecting old Border ballads, and I think I could, with little trouble, put together such a selection from them as might make a neat little volume, [4] to sell for four or five shillings. I will talk to some of the booksellers about it when I get to Edinburgh, and if the thing goes on, you shall be the printer.” Ballantyne highly relished the proposal; and the result of this little experiment changed wholly the course of his worldly fortunes, as well as of his friend’s. (1: 275-76 )


     The title page [5] for this rare book reads as follows:









     The scholarly record of the Apology has been vexed by its frequent confusion with two other texts that have their own share of bibliographical difficulties [7]: Lewis’s two-volume collection, finally published in December of 1800 under the title of Tales of Wonder, and Tales of Terror (May, 1801), of anonymous authorship, although frequently and mistakenly attributed to Lewis. [8] The Apology contains the following poems that would appear later in Tales of Wonder: Scott’s translation of Bürger’sDer Wilde Jäger” entitled “The Chase” (appearing in Tales of Wonder as “The Wild Huntsman”); Lewis’s “The Erl-King’s Daughter” (first appearing in the Monthly Mirror 2 [October 1796]: 371-373),  “The Water-King,” and “Alonzo the Brave” (Scott could have gotten the latter two poems from Lewis himself or from one of the early editions of The Monk); [9] and Robert Southey’s “Lord William” (first appearing anonymously in The Morning Post 16 March 1798; also published in Southey’s Poems [1799]). Ballads appearing in the Apology not included in Lewis’s collection include Southey’s “Poor Mary, the Maid of the Inn” (first appearing in his Poems, 1797); Scott’s “William and Helen” (Lewis will print instead William Taylor’s famed translation of Bürger’s “Lenore”); and John Aikin’s “Arthur and Matilda” (from his Poems, 1791).

   The text of the Apology used in this edition comes with permission from the Houghton Library of Harvard (EC8.Sco86.799ta).


1. “The Lamentation of the Faithful Wife of Asan Aga, From the Morlachian Language.” This poem was not included in either the Apology or Tales of Wonder. Indeed, despite Lockhart’s reference to Scott bringing with him “his recent pieces, designed to appear in Lewis’s collection,” only one poem included in the Apology, “The Chase,” appears in Tales of Wonder (entitled as “The Wild Huntsman”).  The nine poems included, almost certainly suggested by Scott, comprise a representative sampling of the German-influenced “tale of terror” and its main practitioners at the end of the century.  The one name less known by us today, John Aikin, would have come to Scott’s attention as the editor of The Monthly Magazine, which published William Taylor’s widely regarded translation of Bürger’s “Lenore” in 1796.


2. Just five copies of the text survive today. The four owned by Scott’s library at Abbotsford, the Harvard College Library, the Morgan Library, and the Huntington Library all carry the title An Apology for Tales of Terror.  A fifth copy, entitled simply Tales of Terror, resides at Yale. In his 1894 article for The Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, “The First Book Printed by James Ballantyne,” George P. Johnston discusses the only two known copies at the time: 

1) the Abbotsford copy, which bears opposite Scott’s signature this inscription in his hand (“This was the first book printed by Ballantyne of Kelso—only twelve copies were thrown off and none for sale”).


[Image appears courtesy of the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh]


2) a copy that contains an inscription from 1807 in the handwriting of James Ballantyne presenting the text to the publisher John Murray. This second text, now residing at the Morgan, has a fascinating provenance, having once been in the possession of the poet Thomas Campbell and later purchased  by the Victorian bibliographer and collector of Gothic literature Michael Sadleir (see the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction at the University of Virginia).

The fifth copy at Yale entitled Tales of Terror has caused its fair share of scholarly perplexity.   Often confused with Bulmer’s and Bell’s Tales of Terror (London, 1801)—a text of anonymous authorship that responds to Lewis’s Tales of Wonder—the Yale copy, once in the private possession of Professor Edward Dowden, is actually the only one of the five that declares on its title-page “Printed by James Ballantyne.” Aside from its title page, its contents are identical to the Apology. (Johnston discusses this text in his “Note to a Paper Entitled ‘The First Book Printed by James Ballantyne.’”) See Ruff’s Yale dissertation for evidence that the Apology “was not offered for sale” (70-71); among other things, there exist no advertisements of the volume in the papers, not even in the Scots Magazine, with its lists of Scottish publications.


A single copy of what George P. Johnston refers to as the “foreman printer’s copy” (“Note” 90) of the Apology contains just six poems, ending with “William and Helen” (omitting Lewis’s “Alonzo the Brave,” Aikin’s “Arthur and Matilda” and Lewis’s “The Erl-King’s Daughter”); the last ballad ends on page 57 and page 58 is left blank.  This copy was first noted by W.B. Cook in a Notes and Queries article entitled “The First Work of the Ballantyne Press” (1874).  It now resides at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow.  Yale has a “negative photostat” of this “foreman printer’s copy.”


3. Lockhart is wrong on this score: “The Fire-King” appears first in Lewis’s collection Tales of Wonder.


4. Scott alludes to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first edition 1802.


5. The Yale copy’s title page for its Tales of Terror reads after the quotation from Hamlet:







6. From Act 3.4.93, Hamlet’s calling Claudius a “king of shreds and patches.”


7. Most notoriously by Henry Morley, who in the introduction to his edition of Tales of Terror and Wonder (1887) writes mistakenly that “Lewis published at Kelso, in 1799, his Tales of Terror, and followed them up in the next year with his Tales of Wonder”(5-6).


8. For more information on these two texts, see the forthcoming Broadview edition of Tales of Wonder, edited by Douglass H. Thomson.


9. “The Erl-King’s Daughter” does not appear until the fourth edition of The Monk, and it is clear from the versions of “The Water-King” and “Alonzo the Brave” that Scott and Ballantyne were working from versions of these poems as they appeared in earlier editions of the novel.  See the textual variants for these poems.


II. The Scottish-German Connection: “The Unexpected Discovery of an Old Friend in a Foreign Land”


     Scott’s interest in German language and literature stemmed from several key factors that reflect the overall interest of British writers in the subject during the 1790’s. In his important “Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad,” Scott records his growing personal fascination with such authors as Schiller, Goethe, and Bürger amid the larger backdrop of the state of poetry “during the last ten years of the eighteenth century,” which he claims at that time “was at a remarkably low ebb in Britain” (23). He cites two early events that first sparked interest in German writers: Henry Mackenzie’s presentation of an “Essay on German Literature” to the Royal Society on April 21, 1788 and his friend Alexander Fraser Tytler’s translation of Schiller’s Die Räuber in 1792 (Mackenzie’s pictureHenry Mackenzie, engraved by Samuel Freeman after John Watson Gordon  appears at the right). These works alerted Scott to the “existence of a race of poets who had the … lofty ambition to spurn the flaming boundaries of the universe, and investigate the realms of chaos and old night” (25) and were of special interest in Edinburgh, “where the remarkable coincidence between the German language and that of the Lowland Scottish encouraged young men to approach this newly discovered spring of literature” (27). Scott records his rather desultory German lessons under a Dr. Willich during the winters of 1792-94, while another decisive event occurred in the summer of 1793, when Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld (portrayed below) “electrified” an Edinburgh literary society with her reading of a spirited translation of Bürger’s “Lenore” written by William Anna Lætitia Barbauld, engraved by Sir Emery Walker after Henry Hoppner Meyer. From: Grace A. Ellis, A Memoir of Anna Lætitia Barbauld (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1874)Taylor of Norwich, her former student at the dissenting academy in Palgrave, Suffolk. Although not at the reading, Scott heard of the commotion, found a copy of Bürger’s ballads, and immediately came up with his own translation of “Lenore” (entitled “William and Helen”) and, somewhat later, “Der Wilde Jäger” (“The Chase”), the two of which, printed in a “thin quarto,” proved to be his first publication. [1]  Supplied with a copy of Bürger’s ballads and other German works by his relative Hugh Scott’s wife Harriet, “a young gentlewoman of high German blood” (Lockhart, Chapter 2) who aided his studies of the language, Scott tells us he “began to translate on all sides” (“Essay” 43).  Most of these were translations of German dramas, including Goethe’s Goetz von Berlichingen (later published with Lewis’s aid on March 14, 1799), but Scott writes that “the ballad poetry, in which I had made a bold essay, was still my favorite” (43). From this “German-mad” period, we can also date Scott’s translation of Goethe’s “Der Erl-König,” the first poem in An Apology for Tales of Terror. [2]

           Scott’s creative engagement with his German source material was a natural outgrowth of his early fascination with old English and Scottish ballads, especially of the kind that he read in his beloved Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and which he heard and collected in his various excursions in the Border country.  In a note to his “Essay on the Imitations of Ancient Ballads,” Scott draws a comparison between the old Scottish song of “Patrick Spence” found in Percy and its German rendering from Johann Gottfried Herder’s highly influential Volkslieder (1778-1779), [3] noting close similarities not only in their “vocables and rhymes” but in their “the turn of phrase” (43 n.1).  Scott regarded this close connection between Scottish and German balladry as “the unexpected discovery of an old friend in a foreign land” (43 n1). His invoking the German muse also carried a serious agenda, one shared by the Norwich circle of ballad-writers Robert Southey, William Taylor, and Frank Sayers [4]: Scott felt that “the advancing taste in German language and literature . . . might easily be employed as a formidable auxiliary to renewing the spirit of our own” poetry (29), which, we will remember, he considered at a “low ebb” at the time.  James Watt in his study Contesting the Gothic defines a charged political context for this turn to “ancient” and Gothic source materials that reveal a close relationship between old British and German poetry.  This connection comprises what Watt calls a “Loyalist Gothic” from which writers could assert a noble ancient line of British literature in pointed opposition to enervating French influences. Scott in his “Essay” argues that the German example could provide an “emancipation from the rules so servilely adhered to the French school”: once relieved from such “shackles,”  the “genius of Goethe, Schiller, and others . . . was not long in soaring to the highest pitch of poetic sublimity (26).

      One can thus understand poems included in An Apology for Tales of Terror as a small but representative example of the broader movement at the end of the eighteenth-century to reinvigorate British poetry through the example of the ancient British and German ballad. Scott’s participation in this movement also tracks another development that occurs at the turn of the century: the sharp English critical reaction against Teutonic source materials. From a nation still at war with France and embroiled in foreign conflict, this literary import, once promising the revival of a more authentic native idiom, eventually came to be regarded by some conservative critics as, in the words of Michael Gamer, “culturally invasive, morally corrupting, and politically jacobin" (144-45) [5].  Scott, warned by his concerned friends of too close of an association with Lewis and his combustible Gothic productions, would soon renounce his “German-mad” phase [6]. Having made an “escape” from the “general depreciation of the Tales of Wonder” (51), Scott goes on to compile a more respectably nationalist collection of ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802).  Although the mature Sir Walter Scott would often be critical of German and Gothic literature, he reveals in his “Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad” just how formative such influences had been in his decision to embark on a literary career.       


1. The Chase; and, William and Helen. Edinburgh: Manners and Miller, 1796.


2. In a letter to his aunt Christian Rutherford in 1797, Scott sent a copy of his “Erl-King” with the following note: “I send a goblin story, with best compliments to the misses. … I assure you, there is no small impudence in attempting a version of that ballad, as it has been translated by Lewis” (Lockhart 1: 239).


3. The Volkslieder also serves as the primary source for Lewis’s “Danish” and “German” ballads in Tales of Wonder, and Herder’s "Erlkönigs Tochter" provided the inspiration for Goethe’s “Erlkönig.” Further evidence of the connection between the German and old British ballad can be found in Herder’s preface to the Volkslieder, in which he reveals that Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (3 vols., London, 1765) proved the inspiration for his undertaking. He includes in his collection over twenty translations from Percy’s collection, besides a number from Allan Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany (1727) and other volumes of  English and Scottish traditional ballads.


4. For the Norwich circle’s interest in “incorporating ‘German sublimity’ into English ballads,” see David Chandler’s “Southey’s ‘German Sublimity’ and Coleridge’s ‘Dutch Attempt.’


5.  For the turn against German-inspired literature, see Gamer’s Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation and Peter Mortensen’s British Romanticism and Continental Influences: Writing in an Age of Europhobia.


6. Scott uses this phrase in a letter to Mrs. Hughes, 13 December, 1827. For Scott’s turn against his early interests in German and Gothic Literature and his creation of Sir Walter Scott, champion of the Scottish literary identity, see Gamer’s chapter on Scott in his Romanticism and the Gothic.


III. Walter Scott and M.G. Lewis


       Scholars and editors of Walter Scott’s literary works have often been puzzled by the remarkably high estimate Scott held of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s poetic talent.  In addition to asserting that Lewis was “the person who first attempted to introduce something like the German taste into English fictitious[,] dramatic, and poetical composition” (“Essay” 29), Scott felt that “few persons M. G. Lewis, engraved by J. Hollis after George Henry Harlowhave exhibited more mastery of rhyme, or greater command over the melody of verse” (49). While conceding that Lewis’s The Monk “seemed to create an epoch in our literature,” Scott’s main interest in the novel was its poetry, and he went so far as to make the claim, probably a doubtful one, that “the public were chiefly captivated by the poetry with which Mr. Lewis had interspersed his prose narrative” (33). [1]  When Scott agreed to contribute ballads to Lewis’s planned collection of supernaturalist verse, he met with exacting criticism from what he called his ”Mentor” (49). A lyrical technician—Scott referred to him as a “martinet” (48)—Lewis insisted upon scrupulous “accuracy of rhymes and numbers” and, Scott wryly noted, had some trouble disciplining his “northern recruits” (48). [2]  Scott includes in an appendix to his “Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad” correspondence from Lewis that reveals the meticulous, detailed nature of his criticisms and suggested revisions. Although somewhat resistant to Lewis’s requested revisions, [3] Scott  writes that “I was much indebted to him, as forcing upon the notice of a young and careless author hints which the said author’s vanity made him unwilling to attend to, but which were absolutely necessary to any hope of his ultimate success (53-54).

         While Scott may have benefited from what Lewis called a “severe examination” of his early ballads (56), the Scottish poet would come to use the example of his erstwhile mentor’s kind of poetry to define a distinctly different agenda for his own. In giving reasons for the “general depreciation” (51) of Tales of Wonder, Scott outlines several factors, including Lewis’s inclusion of many previously published ballads and the shady dealings of his publisher Joseph Bell. But Scott also finds fault with Lewis’s treatment of supernatural themes in terms that will have a special resonance for the author of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. He objects, as many other critics did, to Lewis’s inclusion of parodies in his collection of Gothic ballads. This decision to “throw some gaiety into his lighter pieces, after the manner of the French writers” in “attempts at what is called pleasantry” Scott deemed a conspicuous failure (51). We remember that opposition to French influence and sophistication comprised one of the motivating forces in the turn to German sources.  With this arch, self-deprecating consciousness pervading Tales of Wonder, Scott found that ballad poetry which “had been at first received as simple and natural, was now sneered at as puerile and extravagant” (49-50).

        Lewis’s distinctly English, very Gothic, and surely “extravagant” treatment of four old Scottish ballads in Tales of Wonder must have caught Scott’s attention. These include “Clerk Colvin,” “Willy’s Lady,” “Courteous King Jamie” [4] and “Tam Lin.” In the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Scott pointedly prints more authentic Scottish versions of all four poems with the purpose of restoring their “native simplicity” in opposition to the anglicizing “additions and alterations” supplied by Lewis (see the head-notes to these poems in the Minstrelsy, all of which cite Lewis’s earlier example). In an “Introduction” Scott supplies to an 1806 reprinting of his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, he draws a strong distinction “betwixt the legendary poems and real imitation of the old ballads” (cxxxvii). By legendary poems he means a “kind of poetry … capable of uniting the vigorous numbers and wild fiction, which occasionally charm us in the ancient ballad, with a greater equality of versification, and elegance of sentiment, than we expect to find in the works of a rude age” (cxxxvii). Almost certainly, he is thinking of the example of Lewis’s poetry. [5] Scott tells us in his 1806 “Introduction” to The Minstrelsy that he designed his first two original compositions for Tales of Wonder, “The Eve of St. John” and “Glenfinlas,” to furnish, respectively, an example of a “real” imitation of an “old ballad,” as opposed to the more “modern” legendary poem “(cxxxvii). This distinction would come to have great importance for Scott as he goes on to the Minstrelsy and his project of recovering and championing the Scottish literary heritage. What seems at first to have been merely a descriptive rubric becomes a charged and purposeful one, with Scott using the distinction to define his project of rescuing the authentic and ancient character of the Scottish ballad from modern and English appropriations of it. [6]

         One can see that Scott’s relationship with Lewis, while early in his literary life and brief, played a fairly significant and complex role in his developing ideas about poetry. At first a devoted Lewisite, he assigns Lewis the lead role in the German revival, includes three of his poems in the Apology, and submits to his mentor’s “severe examination” of his own very first poems. Warned by his literary friends of the turning tide against Lewis, he makes his “escape” from the “general depreciation” of Tales of Wonder and, as he embarks upon his career as literary champion of Scotland, would come to look back upon his early days as a “German-mad” phase.  But Scott also used the particular character of Lewis’s poetry to define his own. As opposed to what he regarded as the mannered, modern, and anglicizing language of Lewis’s Gothic ballad, Scott will aim for a more authentic and native idiom in his compilation of ancient ballads.  



1. Scott took the three poems by Lewis published in the Apology from one of the first three editions of The Monk. The texts of these poems in the Apology differ from those Lewis slightly revised for the fourth edition of the novel.


2. Scott’s good friend John Leyden also contributed to Tales of Wonder with his poem “The Elfin-King.”


3. Although claiming “inflexibility” about the revisions (49), Scott generally accepted most of Lewis’s calls for change. The version of “The Wild Huntsman” that appears in Tales of Wonder accepts every change called for by Lewis (mainly concerning rhyme) and thus differs from the earlier version contained in the Apology (wherein it is entitled “The Chase”). See the textual variants listed at the end of the poem in Text of the Poems.   In a note to the poem “Frederic and Alice” in his Ballads and Lyrical Pieces (1806), Scott comments: “It owes any little merit it may possess to my friend Mr. Lewis, to whom it was sent in an extremely rude state; and who, after some material improvements, published it in his Tales of Wonder” (143). In collating the versions of the ballad “Eve of St. John” as published independently in Kelso in 1800 and as it appeared in Tales of Wonder, John William Ruff notes that, if anything, Scott took pains to “polish” the poem and “make his meter smoother” for its inclusion in Lewis’s collection (175). On the other hand, Scott ignores the lengthy list of suggested revisions—what Lewis called a “severe examination”—for “William and Helen” (see “Appendix” to the “Essay” 54-56).


4. Entitled “King Henrie” in the Minstrelsy.


5. Both Coleridge and Southey also regarded Lewis as modernizing the ancient ballad. In his appraisal of the poetry in The Monk, Coleridge wrote that “The simplicity and naturalness is his own, and not imitated; for it is made to subsist in congruity with a language perfectly modern, the language of his own times. … This, I think, a rare merit” (Griggs 1. 379). Southey takes issue with Lewis on just this point: “In all these modern ballads there is a modernism of thought and language-turns, to me very perceptible and unpleasant. … He is not versed enough in old English” (C. C. Southey 2. 211-212).


6.  Or at least a more “authentic and ancient character of the Scottish ballad”:  as many scholars have noted, Scott took “liberties” with his various source materials, constructing a single ballad from various old copies, adding words and even whole stanzas, and often improving phraseology.  As Hughes notes in his “Prefatory Note,” Scott’s “aim was less to obtain an accurate text than to stimulate an interest in the subject” (xvii).