Poets Associated with Scott’s An Apology for Tales of Terror




Gottfried August Bürger

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Matthew Gregory Lewis

Robert Southey

John Aikin



Table of Contents . . . Introduction . . . Text of the Poems



Gottfried August Bürger (1747–94). Author of the ballads “Lenore” and “Die Wilde Jäger” (appearing in the Apology in Scott’s English translations “William and Helen” and “The Chase”).

     Gottfried August Bürger, engraving after Johann Dominicus FiorilloGreatly inspired by Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1865) and Johann Gottfried Herder’s Volkslieder [“Folksongs”], Bürger was a German poet best known for his supernaturalist ballads in folk-song style; the famous “Lenore” was widely translated and had special influence on the English ballad-writing revival of the 1790’s. Although Bürger served, without much distinction, in a number of minor government posts, his real interests seemed to have consisted in carousing and literary pursuits, and he became closely associated with the “Göttinger Bund” or “Ham,” a literary society whose Musenalmanach (or “Poetry Annual”) published his first poems (“Lenore” in the 1773 issue).  Unapologetically aiming for a popular audience, Bürger was wounded by Schiller’s sharp criticism of his poetry as mannered and overly emotional.  Bürger’s later years, in which he served as a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Gottingen, were largely unproductive ones, marred by personal and financial difficulties.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Author of "Der Erlkönig" [1] (translation by Scott as “The Erl-King; ”one of Scott’s first publications was his translation of Goethe’s drama Goetz von Berlichingen in 1799).

          Goethe was the renaissance man of the German enlightenment. He created major and influential works in all of the major literary genres (in fiction the bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the semi-autobiographical novel Elective Affinities; in drama, the masterful Faust; in poetry, many exquisite ballads, among them "Der Erlkönig" and “Der Fischer,” that would serve as texts for some of music’s most haunting art-songs). A seminal example of the early Sturm und Drang movement, Goethe led the way to the birth of German Romanticism but, also, with his devotion to ideals of Classical order and his wide study of comparative literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, engraving freely derived from a portrait by Georg Melchior Kraustranscended the Romantic as he became the epicenter of the Weimar enlightenment. Something like the Leonardo da Vinci of his time, Goethe was also a lawyer and government minister active in the busy political life of Weimar and the Napoleonic era; a scientist with published treatises on botany, optics, mineralology, and anatomy;  a painter; and friend and inspiration for some of the period’s most significant philosophers, writers, and composers, among them Schiller, Kant, and Beethoven.

      Although the mature Goethe would label Romanticism a kind of sickness ("Classisch ist das Gesunde, Romantisch ist das Kranke”), for the young Walter Scott and other aspiring British poets in the 1790’s, he served as evidence of the “existence of a race of poets who had the . . . lofty ambition to spurn the flaming boundaries of the universe and, and investigate the realms of chaos and old night” (“Essay” 25). In 1770 during a stay in Strasbourg, the young Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder, who interested him in the works of Shakespeare and the “ancient poetry” and ballads of Macpherson and Percy.  Many historians date this event as the beginning of the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement, with its emphasis on the Volkslieder (“folk-song”) and its aim to recover a more authentic, national poetic idiom, often set in pointed opposition to French and Classical models. Scott found this new poetic language “particularly apt to bear the stamp of the extravagant and the supernatural” (“Essay” 27), and his spirited adaptation of the chilling "Der Erlkönig," although not the first English translation, [2] bears testimony to his early fascination with Goethe’s lyric poems.

         For more on the life and achievements of Goethe, visit the University of Munich’s Goethezeitportal and the Goethe Society of North America website.

1. Der Erlkönig” comes from Goethe’s opera Die Fischerin (first performed 22 July 1782) and circulated widely during the 1780’s and ’90’s.


2. Lewis’s translation of the ballad first appeared in The Monthly Mirror 2 (October 1796): 371-373. Lewis met Goethe during his stay at Weimar in 1792 and presented to him a copy of this poem (see Macdonald 103).


M. G. Lewis (1775-1818). Author of three poems in the Apology: “The Water-King,” “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogine,” and “The Erl-King’s Daughter.”

            English fiction writer, dramatist, and poet, best known for his sensational Gothic novel The Monk (1796), a volatile concoction of forbidden sex and dark supernaturalism that, owing to its great popularity and controversial critical reception, would earn its author the nickname “Monk Lewis” (a moniker he delighted in owning).  M. G. Lewis, engraved by J. Hollis after George Henry Harlow. From: Margaret Baron-Wilson, The Life and Correspondence of M. G. Lewis (London: Henry Colburn, 1839)Also a translator of many German ballads and plays, Lewis played an important role in fueling English and Scottish fascination with German ghost stories and folklore during the 1790’s and beyond.  Although principally identified with his Gothic blockbusters The Monk and the play Castle Spectre (1797), Lewis’s own attitude toward the Schauerromantik was highly variable, as he created versions ranging from the most morbid of reveries to impish parodies of them. Always courting popular taste, yet prone to mock the very Gothic productions that won him favor, Lewis can be understood best as one of the first writers who understood the commercial appeal and critical perils of supernatural literature.

No tortured Romantic outsider, Lewis served in various governmental positions, including a time as Member of Parliament, secured for him by his well-to-do father, a Deputy Secretary at the War Office. May 1794 found the 19 year old Lewis, just graduated from Oxford, working as an attaché at the British Embassy in The Hague and continuing his close study of the German language, but in a fashion characteristic of his undistinguished political career, he spent far more time on his beloved literary pursuits than on diplomatic ones.  At The Hague he had begun writing the “romance” that would become The Monk, a novel that, especially in its subplot, reveals Lewis’s keen knowledge of German ghost tales and such dark productions as Schiller’s Der Geisterseher (or “The Ghost-Seer”).   Other sources for The Monk surely include Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic romances, but Lewis’s novel outstrips any of his predecessors in its unapologetic, stagy supernaturalism and relentless depiction of warped human desire. The novel follows the career of Ambrosio the monk, who tempted by a cross-dressing succubus sent to ensnare him, embarks on a riotous course of debauchery that eventually leads to matricide, incest, and his own spectacular destruction by Lucifer. Lewis’s heady blend of strident anti-Catholicism, sexuality, and supernaturalism insured the novel’s popularity at the same time it incurred a largely virulent critical reception, most notably by Coleridge and T.J. Mathias.

               The sub-plot of the novel featured the ghostly tale of the Bleeding Nun, [1] which even Coleridge found “truly terrific” (Critical Review 195), and Lewis, ever willing to exploit his Gothic props, included her spectacular appearance in his play the Castle Spectre, which went through forty-seven performances at Drury Lane and earned Lewis the unheard of sum of 18,000 pounds.  Having put his stamp on Gothic fiction and drama, Lewis next planned a collection of its poetry, which actually had first awakened his interest in German tropes, attested to by his early translations in 1792-93 of Goethe’s "Der Erlkönig" and ballads from Herder’s Volkslieder.  Fondly referred to as his “hobgoblin repast” (Guthke 276), the collection, eventually entitled Tales of Wonder (1801), met a largely negative reception for many reasons, not the least of which was emergent Romanticism’s disdain for the “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.”  Although Lewis continued to write Gothic tales, his reputation faded, and he turned his interest to managing plantations in Jamaica that he inherited from his father. Yet in 1816, now largely a forgotten figure, the author who first sparked British interests in German and Gothic literature, emerges at the Villa Diodati, where he provided Byron and Shelley source material from his beloved ghost tales and a running translation of  Goethe’s Faust for the author of Manfred.      

           For more on Lewis and his key role in the rise and decline of Gothic literature, see "Matthew Lewis's The Monk - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net", edited by Frederick S. Frank; Castle Spectre, edited by Diego Saglia at the Università di Parma; and Jack Voller’s Lewis page on the Literary Gothic.

1. In his critical introduction to The Monk  (13-14), D. L. Macdonald suggests that the episode draws upon  Johann Karl August Musäus’ “Die Entführung” (“The Elopement”)  from Volksmärchen der Deutsche (“Folk Tales of the Germans,” 1782-86). 


Robert Southey (1774-1843). Author of “Lord William” and “Poor Mary, Maid of the Inn” in the Apology.

     Appointed Poet Laureate in 1813, after the compiler of the Apology, Walter Scott, refused the post. Southey’s early interest in the Gothic ballad, followed by his belittling of its literary merit, reflects the general rise and fall of the status of such poetry in the late 1790’s (on this score, see Scott’s eventual recantation of his early “German-mad” phase detailed in The German-Scottish Connection). Like Lewis and Scott, Southey displayed an early fascination with horror stories, preferring the dark Titus Andronicus to Shakespeare’s other plays and delighting in the Ossian stories, tales from the Arabian Nights, and ghost stories told by his uncle (Ruff 123). His early poem, “An Ode to Horror” (1791), has purely Gothic moments but also contains an attack on war and slavery. Also like many other poets of the age, Southey was smitten by Bürger’s ballads, as can be seen in this passage from a letter to Wynn dated 15 January 1799: “Pray buy me the ghost book. I shall hardly be satisfied till I Robert Southey, engraved by Peter Lightfoot after Samuel Lane after Sir Thomas Lawrencehave got a ballad as good as ‘Lenora.’ Let me hear from you, and if you should meet with a ghost, a witch, or a devil, pray send them to me” (Warter I: 64). He surely also understood the commercial appeal of the supernatural ballad, having read Lewis’s The Monk with its interspersed ballads. Ina head-note to the horrific if not supernaturalist ballad included by Scott in the Apology, “Poor Mary,”  Southey acknowledges his debt to the anapestic meter Lewis introduced in his “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogine” from the novel, a poem Southey calls “deservedly popular.” Such early Bristol poems as “Donica” and “Rudiger” (1797) share with Lewis’s ballads from The Monk Scandinavian and Germanic medieval settings, fondness for explanatory head-notes, unapologetic use of supernaturalism, similar verse forms, and aversion to archaic diction.

       Southey’s later Gothic ballads, such as the Apology’s “Lord William” (which he considered his best) and “The Old Woman of Berkeley”(which proved to be one of his most popular), come from a period during his close working relationship with William Taylor of Norwich, known best for his influential translation of “Lenore,” and his friend Frank Sayers. David Chandler has demonstrated that Southey conceived of these ballads as a “protest against Coleridge’s peculiar development of the German ballad” in his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and as an effort to restore true “German sublimity” in opposition to Coleridge’s more mannered “Dutch attempt.”  This desire to invigorate British poetry though the German example tracks Scott’s similar efforts, but Southey had an ambiguous, at best, estimate of Scott’s “Mentor” for these matters, M.G. Lewis. Although he praised Lewis’s “Alonzo” and agreed to have several of his own Lewis-like ballads included in Tales of Wonder, Southey would demand that all seven of his contributions to the first edition of Lewis’s collection be withdrawn in the second edition.  As his career evolved, Southey, much like Walter Scott, would come to devalue his own ballads dealing with supernatural and Gothic themes.  In a letter from December of 1809, Southey terms one of his most famed poems, “Poor Mary, the Maid of the Inn,” a “paltry ballad” and expresses amazement and chagrin that it is better known than his more serious works (Warter 2.181).  In a recently discovered letter of Southey to Wynn dated 30 December 1800 concerning Tales of Wonder, Southey  complains that “my name should not have been prefixed to those Balladings [‘Bishop Bruno,’ ‘The Pious Painter,’ ‘Cornelius Agrippa’s Bloody Book’] which I published anonymously& look upon as the cask droppings—cheese parings & candle ends.” Although tempted to join the current vogue for wonder ballads (“Ballads are catching—& my fingers tickle with a legendary itch”), he will “refrain” from doing so and continue work on what he considers a far more noble undertaking, the “Curse of Kehama.”

John Aikin (1747-1822). Author of “Arthur and Matilda” in the Apology.

 John Aikin, engraved by Francis Engleheart after Unknown artistUnitarian M.D., educator, political liberal, geographer, botanist, biographer, prison reformer, literary critic, and journal editor. His interest and accomplishments in this many intellectual and social pursuits can be traced to his early education at the famed Warrington Academy, a leading Dissenting institution that included among its faculty his father, the Unitarian Rev. John Aikin, the Rev. William Enfield, and Joseph Priestley. Perhaps best known today as the brother of Ann Lætitia Aikin Barbauld and for his many humanitarian efforts as a committed Dissenter, Akin played a small but formative role in the rise of Gothic literature. In 1793 he co-wrote with is sister "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror, with Sir Bertrand, a Fragment," an early defense of Gothic literature that sought to distinguish a sublime, literarily acceptable poetics of terror from its cruder presentations. As editor of the Monthly Magazine, he introduced Gottfried August Bürger’s poetry to an English audience in 1796 with his publication of William Taylor’s “Lenora.” His Poems (1791) include a few ballads in the Gothic style, including “Arthur and Matilda,” with the following note:  “The idea of this piece was taken from a ballad translated by an ingenious friend [1] from the German of Buirgher [sic]. The story and scenery are however totally different, and the resemblance only consists in a visionary journey.”  Aikin’s ballad differs from others in the Apology in its use of the so-called “explained supernatural” (in which seemingly otherworldly events are later revealed to stem from natural causes), a procedure made famous in Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels.


1. That friend is Taylor, whose “Lenora,” composed as early as 1790, circulated widely in manuscript before its publication in the Monthly Magazine. In his Historic Survey of German Poetry (1830), Taylor refers to Aikin’s note as proof that his “Lenora” antedates the other versions of the poem published during the 1790’s (2. 51).