A Note on One of the Earliest Gothic Ballads: Frank Sayers's "Sir Egwin"

Article excerpt

  Frederick S. Frank--Fred to all who knew and learned from him--
  explored the minor manifestations of the Gothic spirit with as much
  relish and attention to detail as his important work on its major
  authors. Whether tracking down illustrations from Gothic chapbooks or
  uncovering Gothic elements in Asian writers, Fred worked tirelessly
  and with his characteristic enthusiasm to expand our understanding of
  the reach of the Gothic (and it is worth emphasizing that he paved
  the way for today's growing interest in the International Gothic). As
  I worked on this essay concerning a minor Gothic figure--and a
  reluctant one at that--I kept thinking, "What would Fred think, what
  would he have to say?" These kind questions indicate that Fred's
  spirit of inquiry will live on in the writing of those of us
  fortunate enough to have known and worked with him.

In July of 1796 Robert Southey expressed a fascination, as did many of his contemporaries, (1) with the appearance of two translations of Gottfried August Burger's ballads in the Monthly Magazine, "Lenora" and "The Lass of Fair Wone" (from the German "Des Pfarrers Tochter von Taubenhain")--poems that would exert a tremendous influence on the short-lived craze for Gothic balladry at the end of the eighteenth century. Although both were published anonymously, Southey soon learned the identity of the translator, William Taylor of Norwich, and wrote to Grosvenor Charles Bedford seeking information about him: "Who is this Taylor? I suspected they were by Sayers" (Collected Letters [31 July 1796]). Southey refers here to Frank Sayers (1763-1817), a close friend of Taylor's and, at this time, the better-known author of Dramatic Sketches of Northern Mythology (1790) and Poems (1792), the latter of which contains one of the earliest published ballads in the German style, "Sir Egwin." Following the lead of Thomas Percy's Five Pieces of Runic Poetry and Thomas Gray's northern Odes, Sayers wrote that the Dramatic Sketches aimed to invoke "the splendid and sublime religion of our Northern ancestors" and to recommend "a freer introduction of its imagery into the poetry of the English nation" ("Preface" 20-21). Southey knew Sayers's work well, claiming that the Dramatic Sketches was "the first book I was ever master of money enough to order at a country bookseller's" (Robberds 1: 447). Given what we would now term the Gothic imagery and modality of some of the Sketches and "Sir Egwin"--a descent into a gloomy underworld to force a prophecy from a "new slain cor[p]se"; an erring bride punished by having to drink from the skull of her murdered lover--one can understand why Southey would think that "Lenora" came from the pen of Sayers. Southey would later meet the two men, form a productive literary friendship with them, and, following their lead, pen his own Gothic ballads. The little notice taken of Sayers by the critical tradition mainly concerns his place in that "almost famous" literary society of Norwich, his well-documented influence on Southey, and, in historical accounts of prosody, his revival of blank verse in sections of the Dramatic Sketches.2 Still, Sayers deserves to be recognized for the minor role he played in the story of the meteoric rise and fall of the Gothic ballad in the 1790s, both as one of its earliest practitioners and as an author who would come to regret and renounce his association with the poetry of terror.

Frank Sayers may have superseded William Taylor to the press with his Gothic ballad "Sir Egwin," but in every other respect Taylor led the way as, in the words of George Borrow, "the founder of the Anglo-German school in England" (318). Taylor met Sayers when the two attended the Barbaulds' Palgrave Academy, both of them members of a Dissenting community that had its own interesting affiliations with the story of the Gothic ballad in England.3 After leaving Palgrave in 1779, Taylor travelled widely in Europe, learning French and Italian, and then went on to Germany where, according to his biographer J. …


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