Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1775-1818

Biographical note

Novelist, son of Matthew Lewis, Deputy Secretary in the War Office, was educated at Westminster and Oxford. Thereafter he went to Germany. From his childhood tales of witchcraft and the supernatural had a powerful fascination for him, and in Germany he had ample opportunities for pursuing his favourite study, with the result that at the age of 20 he became the author of The Monk, a tale in which the supernatural and the horrible predominate to an unprecedented extent, and from which he is known as “Monk Lewis” The same characteristic appears in all his works, among which may be mentioned Tales of Terror [1779], Tales of Wonder (to which Sir W. Scott contributed), and Romantic Tales [1808]. Though affected and extravagant in his manners, Lewis was not wanting in kindly and generous feelings, and in fact an illness contracted on a voyage to the West Indies to inquire into and remedy some grievances of the slaves on his estates there was the cause of his death.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818), known as “Monk” Lewis, was the son of a rich Jamaica planter. During a six months’ visit to Weimar (1792–3), when he was introduced to Goethe, he applied himself to the study of German literature, especially novels and the drama. In 1794 he was appointed ‘attaché’ to the Embassy at the Hague, and in the course of ten weeks wrote ‘Ambrosio, or The Monk’, which was published in 1795. In 1798 he made the acquaintance of Scott, and procured his promise of cooperation in his contemplated ‘Tales of Terror’. In the same year he published the ‘Castle Spectre’ (first played at Drury Lane, Dec. 14, 1797), in which, to quote the postscript “To the Reader,” he meant (but Sheridan interposed) “to have exhibited a whole regiment of Ghosts.” ‘Tales of Terror’ were printed at Weybridge in 1801, and two or three editions of ‘Tales of Wonder’, to which Byron refers, came out in the same year. Lewis borrowed so freely from all sources that the collection was called “Tales of Plunder.” In the first edition (two vols., printed by W. Bulmer for the author, 1801) the first eighteen poems, with the exception of ‘The Fire King’ (xii.) by Walter Scott, are by Lewis, either original or translated. Scott also contributed ‘Glenfinlas, The Eve of St. John, Frederick and Alice, The Wild Huntsmen (Der Wilde Jäger). Southey contributed six poems, including ‘The Old Woman of Berkeley’ (xxiv.). ‘The Little Grey Man’ (xix.) is by H. Bunbury. The second volume is made up from Burns, Gray, Parnell, Glover, Percy’s ‘Reliques’, and other sources.

A second edition, published in 1801, which consists of thirty-two ballads (Southey’s are not included), advertises “‘Tales of Terror’ printed uniform with this edition of ‘Tales of Wonder’.” ‘Romantic Tales’, in four volumes, appeared in 1808. Of his other works, ‘The Captive, A Monodrama’, was played in 1803; the ‘Bravo of Venice, A Translation from the German’, in 1804; and ‘Timour the Tartar’ in 1811. His ‘Journal of a West Indian Proprietor’ was not published till 1834. He sat as M.P. for Hindon (1796–1802).

He had been a favourite in society before Byron appeared on the scene, but there is no record of any intimacy or acquaintance before 1813. When Byron was living at Geneva, Lewis visited the Maison Diodati in August, 1816, on which occasion he “translated to him Goethe’s ‘Faust’ by word of mouth,” and drew up a codicil to his will, witnessed by Byron, Shelley, and Polidori, which contained certain humane provisions for the well-being of the negroes on his Jamaica estates. He also visited him at ‘La Mira’ in August, 1817. Byron wrote of him after his death: “He was a good man, and a clever one, but he was a bore, a damned bore—one may say. But I liked him.”

To judge from his letters to his mother and other evidence (Scott’s testimony, for instance), he was a kindly, well-intentioned man, but lacking in humour. When his father condemned the indecency of the ‘Monk’, he assured him “that he had not the slightest idea that what he was then writing could injure the principles of any human being.” “He was,” said Byron, “too great a bore to lie,” and the plea is evidently offered in good faith. As a writer, he is memorable chiefly for his sponsorship of German literature. Scott said of him that he had the finest ear for rhythm he ever met with—finer than Byron’s; and Coleridge, in a letter to Wordsworth, Jan., 1798 (‘Letters of S. T. C.’ (1895), i. 237), and again in ‘Table Talk’ for March 20, 1834, commends his verses. Certainly his ballad of “Crazy Jane,” once so famous that ladies took to wearing “Crazy Jane” hats, is of the nature of poetry. (See ‘Life’, 349, 362, 491, etc.; ‘Life and Correspondence’ of M. G. Lewis (1839), i. 158, etc.; ‘Life of Scott’, by J. G. Lockhart (1842), pp. 80–83, 94.)

[From English Bards and Scotch Reviewers / Byron; ed. by E.H. Coleridge, note.]


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