Monk Lewis: “thy skull discern a deeper hell”

Many readers of Regency-era literature recognize the name “Monk” Lewis.

But who the devil was the fellow?

Monk Lewis

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775 – 1818) was the son of a wealthy Jamaican planter. His mother ran off with the music teacher when her son was six. He later supported her financially and socially, and then she became lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales.

His success was almost entirely dependent on his classic tale of The Monk. This was the Gothic poem of a holy man’s descent into depraved evil.

She sealed his lips with a wanton kiss;

‘Though I forgive your breaking your vows to heaven,

I expect you to keep your vows to me.’

It was an astonishing success, all the more so because the author was not of age. The first edition was followed by a second and third. The most objectionable passages were edited out for having caused much grief to his family. Someone said of Lewis, and perhaps others:

“Twenty is not the age at which prudence is most to be expected.”

He never married. When he came into his fortune, the aristocrats who had previously welcomed him into their salons–the Hollands, Lansdowne and others–now despised him. Lewis pouted at first, reading during dinner and criticizing the company to be had at Oatlands.

Oh! Wonder-working Lewis! Monk, or Bard

Who’d fain would make Parnassus a church-yard

Lo, the wreaths of yew, not laurel, wreath thy brow

Thy Muse a Sprite! Apollo’s sexton, Thou!

—-Byron in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers

Even his fellow poets attacked him, and over one work alone. What was it about The Monk that attracted such great vitriol?

The Monk

The work was a morality plot, normally despised by the young, but delivered so cleverly that even Austen’s Northanger Abbey was bound to mention it as the best thing since Tom Jones. All harkened to it like a Pied Piper with its horrific plot and violent supernaturalism. Rape, live burial, grisly murder and the downfall of the once-sanctified and now defiled.  These lurid themes became interwoven in a new genre–the Gothic tale.

It was all Lewis was ever known for. But it was enough.

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