Poetry, Vampires in
Poetry, Vampires in(pop culture)
It is not surprising that writers found poetry a natural vehicle of expression for the vampire theme. Poetry speaks with some facility to the intense passions and dark concerns that have been suppressed by conventional society. It relates the central human needs of love and community (family) commonly celebrated by society with other key concerns of death and sexuality. The latter concerns, while just as important to human life, are often neglected and the emotions attached to them denied, while discussion of them has been pushed to the fringe of social discourse.
The vampire, especially after its unreality was established by Enlightenment science, became an ideal vehicle for writers to express their own complex feelings and to illustrate their personally frightening experiences. The dead-yet-alive vampire, blending into the shadows of society, obsessed with blood (and other body fluids), embodies the darker but no less real side of human existence. Given any of the commonly accepted positive human virtues/emotions, the literary vampire immediately juxtaposed in his or her person both the lights and shadows of the author’s life.
The Vampire in Germany: The emergence of the modern literary vampire began with the exploration of the vampiric theme in the poetry of Germany. More than a generation prior to John Polidori‘s famous 1819 novella, “The Vampyre”, poets were reacting to the intense debate on the subject of vampirism that took place in the German universities in the mid-eighteenth century. Possibly the first such poem was “Der Vampir” written by Heinrich August Ossenfelder:
My dear young maiden clingeth Unbending, fast and firm To all the longheld teaching Of a mother ever true; As in vampires unmortal Folk on the Theyse’s portal Heyduck-like do believe.
But my Christian thou dost dally, And wilt my loving parry Till I myself avenging To a vampire’s health a-drinking Him toast in pale tockay.
And as softly thou art sleeping To thee shall I come creeping And thy life’s blood drain away.
And so shalt thou be trembling For thus shall I be kissing And death’s threshold thou’lt be crossing With fear, in my cold arms.
And last shall I thee question Compared to such instruction What are a mother’s charms?
Many similar poems show up in the collections of other poets. More important than any of these specifically vampire poems, however, was Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenora.” “Lenora” told the story of William, a young man who died but came back to claim his bride. Arriving in the middle of the night, he called his unsuspecting Lenora to travel with him to their bridal bower. She responded:
“Say on, where is our bridal hall? Where, how the nuptial bower? Far, far from here! Still, cool, and small, Where storms do never lower.
Hast room for me. For me and thee.
Come up and dress and mount with me! The wedding guests are waiting No more of this debating!”
After a ride across the country at breakneck speed, William spoke again:
“In somber gloom we near the tomb With song and wailing tearful! Come,
open stands the bridal room, Though all around look fearful.
Come sexton, quick! Come with the choir, Our bridal song with reed and
lyre! Come, priest, and say the blessing, Nor wait for our confessing.”
The couple rode into the graveyard:
High reared the steed and wildly neighed; Fire from his nostrils started.
And lo! from underneath the maid The earth to ‘dmit them parted.
While not a vampire poem, “Lenora” does play upon the themes of love and death, which are so essential to the vampire’s life. Denounced by the literary critics, it nevertheless found a popular following. In the 1790s it was translated into English by William Taylor of Norwich and for several years circulated around Norwich as a favored topic for poetry reading/discussion groups, then a widespread entertainment event. Sir Walter Scott heard of “Lenora” from the discussions of Taylor’s as yet unpublished poem and went about securing a copy of the original German text. Upon reading it, he too became enthusiastic and chose to make his own translation of the ballad the initial publication of his lengthy literary career. Published the same year as Taylor’s translation, it became by far the more popular version. The importance of “Lenora” was further demonstrated by the fact that at least three additional translations were made in 1796 alone and others in subsequent years.
In Germany, “Lenora” inspired what has been traditionally called the first vampire poem, “The Bride of Corinth” (“Die Braut von Korinth”), in 1797 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In most later commentaries on the vampire in literature, Goethe was said to have based his poem on the account from ancient Greece of the encounter of the philosopher Apollonius with a lamiai. However, it is, in fact, a retelling of another story; that of Philinnon as related by Phlegon. Goethe’s version told of a young man who had traveled to Athens to claim his bride, the daughter of his father’s comrade.
Shown into a guest room after his travels by the woman of the house, he was surprised by the arrival of a beautiful young woman at his door. He noted her paleness, but nevertheless invited her in. She wanted a lock of his hair. He offered her wine, but she would not drink until midnight, at which time she assumed a new vitality. As dawn approached, the mother heard the activity of the two lovers and burst into the room. The girl turned out to be the recently deceased daughter of the family. She had returned from her grave to find that her love had denied her. Before she left, she told the young man that he would soon join her in death, and asked her mother to see that their bodies were burned. She had been given an ineffective Christian burial, and was now roaming the land without the peace of death.
The Vampire in England: “Lenora” and “The Bride of Corinth” became standard reading for the emerging Romantic movement and the poets who were exploring their inner consciousness. Both Shelley and Lord Byron were enthusiastic about it, and “Lenora” directly influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey who shared the honors for producing the first vampire poems in English. Geraldine, the vampiric figure in Coleridge’s 1801 poem “Christabel,” was never identified as a vampire, but did, as Arthur H. Nethercot effectively argued, have many of the characteristics. The first hint that something was wrong with Geraldine was revealed as Christabel assisted Geraldine, who had appeared outside the castle walls, into her castle home:
The lady Geraldine sank, belike through pain, And Christabel with might and main Lifted her up, a weary weight, Over the threshold of the gate: Then the lady rose again, And moved, as she were not in pain.
Coleridge seemed to be making reference to the vampire’s inability to enter a home without first being invited, now a standard aspect of vampire lore. Then Christabel’s father’s dog gave an uncharacteristic “angry” moan as Geraldine passed; vampires have a strange effect on animals. As Christabel showed her guest to a place of rest, Geraldine noted that the midnight hour was hers.
The two women lay together, and Christabel took Geraldine in her arms.
During Geraldine’s hour, Christabel entered a trance-like state while all the night-birds quieted their chirping. The following morning, Christabel awoke refreshed as one who had “drunken deep of all the blessedness of sleep!” While Coleridge must be credited with writing the first English vampire poem, Southey was the first to introduce a traditional vampire as a character in one of his poems. In the poem “Thalaba the Destroyer” the hero Thalaba had a brief encounter with a vampire, his recently deceased bride Oneiza who had died on their wedding day. He was forced to kill her anew by thrusting a lance through her. Southey based his addition of the vampire character to his poem upon reading accounts of the Eastern European vampires—the same ones that had, a half century earlier, caused the debate over vampires in Germany.
Once introduced to British poetry, the vampire made a number of appearances throughout the early nineteenth century. Possibly the first poem dedicated to the vampire was John Stagg’s “The Vampyre” published in his 1810 collection The Minstrel of the North. Like Southey, Stagg derived the material for his poem from reading the Eastern European vampire reports. It related a vampire’s attack on Herman, the young husband of Gertrude. Herman was under attack from his recently deceased friend Sigismund:
From the drear mansions of the tomb, From the low regions of the dead, The ghost of Sigismund doth roam,
And dreadful haunts me in my bed! There vested in infernal guise, By means to me not understood, Close to my side the goblin lies, And drinks away my vital blood!
As he predicted, Herman died that night, and a frightened Gertrude saw Sigismund at their house. The next day, Sigismund’s tomb was opened and his body was found “Still warm as life, and undecay’d.” The townspeople drove a stake through the body of both Sigismund and Herman.
Stagg was followed by Lord Byron’s “The Gaiour,” the story of an “infidel,” a term for non-Muslims in Islamic lands. As an infidel, the story’s hero was cursed by a Muslim to become a vampire and roam the earth sucking the blood of those closest to him. John Keats‘s “Lamia” (1819) drew inspiration from the ancient account of Apollonius and the lamiai, though the translation he used lacked the key original reference to the vampire. In Keats’s poem, the lamiai established a vampiric relationship, a form of psychic vampirism, with Lucius, her human love.
Keats also drew on the vampiric relationship in several other poems such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. After Keats, however, the vampire appeared only rarely in English literature. Henry Thomas Liddell, a youthful James Clark Maxwell, and Arthur Symons were among the authors who made the few British contributions to the genre between the romantics and the 1897 effort of poet laureate Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s brief “The Vampire” was a lament to the “rag and a bone and a hank of hair,” that is, the “woman who did not care” for the man who worshipped her. Kipling’s poem was inspired by a painting of a beautiful woman looking down on the man who had died out of love unreturned. It was memorable as a defiant statement about the vamp, the non-supernatural femme fatale, the subject of numerous silent movies, epitomized by the characters portrayed by actress Theda Bara.
The French Poetic Vampire: In France, the vampire emerged after the 1819 novella by Polidori. It found its most expansive expression in drama, there being no fewer than five French vampire plays within two years. During the nineteenth century, however, the short story was the primary vehicle for the vampire’s French apparitions. Few poets made reference to the vampire. Among these was Théophile Gautier, more notable for his vampire stories, but who in 1844 also wrote “Les Taches Jaunes.” A man who had lost his love sat alone and noted:
But there are yellow bruises on my body And violet stains; Though no white vampire come with lips blood-crimsoned To suck my veins!
And then he asked:
Oh, fondest of my loves, from that far heaven Where thou must be, Hast thou returned to pay the debt of kisses Thou owest me?
A decade later, when Charles Baudelaire began his probings of human experience, he dedicated his poems, including his vampire poems, to Gautier.
Baudelaire succeeded in outraging even French society in the mid-nineteenth century. His “The Vampyre” and “Les Metamorphoses du Vampire,” which appeared in the 1857 collection Les Fluers du Mal, earned him a trial for obscenity. In the latter, for example, he described the morning-after relationship of a man and woman. The man lamented:
When out of all my bones she had sucked the marrow And as I turned to her, in the act to harrow My senses in one kiss, to end her chatter, I saw the gourd that was filled with foul matter!
The New Wave of Vampire Poetry: During the twentieth century the vampire made an increasing number of appearances. Notable among the poems early in the century was the Irish writer James Joyce’s brief vampire poem embedded in Ulysses:
On swift sail flaming From storm and south He comes, pale vampire Mouth to my mouth.
In this brief poem Joyce draws on the flying Dutchman legend as treated in Richard Wagner’s opera, to which Joyce added mention of the vampire, an image that he uses in several places in Ulysses. Wagner, in turn, had been inspired by Der Vampir, the opera by Heinrich August Marschner. Joyce’s fellow countryman, magician, and poet William Butler Yeats, also penned a brief vampire verse titled “Oil and Blood”:
In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli Bodies of holy men and women exude Miraculous oil, odour of violet.
But under heavy loads of trampled clay Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood: Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet.
During the twentieth century, American poets appropriated the vampire, and as the century progresses, they seem to have become the largest community of poets to make use of it. Among the first was Conrad Aiken. He initially composed a poem, “La Belle Morte,” inspired by Gautier’s “La Morte Amoureuse,” but his “The Vampire” (published in 1914) was a delightful piece of light verse:
She rose among us where we lay.
She wept, we put our work away She chilled our laughter, stilled our play; And spread a silence there.
And darkness shot across the sky, And once, and twice, we heard her cry; And saw her lift white hands on high And toss her troubled hair.
Aiken described the beautiful vampire who had affected all (at least all of the males) who saw her:
“Her eyes have feasted on the dead, And small and shapely is her head, And dark and small her mouth,” they said, “And beautiful to kiss; Her mouth is sinister and red As blood in moonlight is.”
During the pulp era, as the horror short story in general, and the vampire short story in particular, found a new audience, the number of vampire poems showed a marked increase. But it was nothing to compare with the flood of vampire poems that have appeared since World War II. During the last generation, with the development of a noticeable vampire subculture and the rise of vampire fanzines, a flurry of poetic efforts have responded to a community that lives for the vampire and finds its inspiration in the shadowy side of life. More than half of all the vampire poems ever written have been published since 1970. They are regularly featured in various vampire magazines, from such purely literary magazines as Margaret Louise Carter‘s, Vampire’s Crypt to the more general periodicals such as Realm of the Vampire, Bloodlines, Fresh Blood, Onyx, Shadowdance, and Nefarious.
Contemporary vampire poems, as poetry in general, tend to be short and revel in images and the feelings of the poet. They stand in sharp contrast to the epic storytelling verse of the nineteenth century. Also, the contemporary poets celebrate the vampire and the dark images of life in the evening, whereas nineteenth-century poets tended to operate in the sunlight and to point the finger of moral judgment—or at the very least the righteous indignation of a wronged lover—at the vampires who inhabited their imaginations. Common to both the newer and the older poetry is the use of the vampire as a metaphor to highlight the different levels of power assumed as lovers come together, and the willingness of the more dominant partner to take from the other and leave them empty. Some of the distinct flavor of the poetry of this generation, as well as the continuing common theme, was vividly illustrated in a poem by Ryan Spingola that appeared in Nefarious (1993):
I was never what you wanted but my blood will serve your purpose quench your hunger for a short time use me, I give you my life and soul they mean nothing to me now you always had my soul Since that day long ago now you don’t want it my blood is all you want you’ll take it and leave me lying on the cold floor to die alone and drained of my very life
The vampire revival of the 1990s provided space for poetry on vampires, whose rich imagery supplies poets with endless quantities of inspiration.
Serving as an early venue for the new vampire-oriented poets was Preternatural Press, located in Silver Spring, Maryland, which published a number of volumes through the mid 1990s and beginning in 1990 issued an annual periodical, Rouge et Noir: Les poemes des Vampires. Rouge et Noir was succeeded by Dreams of Decadence: Vampire Poetry and Fiction, a literary magazine that appeared in 1995, soon picked up national distribution, and continued to appear as late as 2002. Along with the more serious efforts at poetry represented by Rouge et Noir and Dreams of Decadence, poetry served as a vehicle for humor, nowhere more vividly demonstrated than in the three massive self-published volumes by Vlad Tepic, a.k.a. Count Flapula.
In the new century, poetry like many things vampiric, shifted to the Internet. Few indeed were publications such as Maria Alexander and Christina Kiplinger Johns’s Biting Midnight: A Feast of Darksome Verse (2002). Instead, on the Internet, vampire poety has found a home and a number of sites and many works are featured on the poetry pages of the Vampire Legacy Society, the Realms of Darkness, and the Vampire Forum. Several more-or-less ephemeral poetry groups have operated under the name Undead Poets Society. While yet to make the impact of fiction writers, vampire poets have kept their art very much alive.
Note: Vampire fans are in debt to the Count Dracula Fan Club (now the Vampire Empire) and compiler Steven Moore for the publication The Vampire Verse: An Anthology. It is a comprehensive collection of vampire-oriented poems up to the modern era, with a sampling of contemporary verse. It also has an extensive bibliography of additional contemporary vampire poems.
Germany and Austria also have a significant tradition of vampire poems, some quite serious, some parodies and even limericks. A collection of such texts is found in Simone Frieling, Hrg., Von Fledermäusen und Vampiren. Geschichten und Gedichte (Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig, Germany: Insel-Verlag, 2003).
Spriggs, Robin, and Brent L. Glenn. The Dracula Poems: A Poetic Encounter with the Lord of Vampires. Murrayviille, GA: Circle Myth Press, 1992. 122 pp.