Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Water-King (1800)

Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818)

1.        Matthew Lewis is best remembered for The Monk (1796), one of the most influential, and controversial, Gothic novels in English. This novel was written in ten weeks and published before he was twenty. He was a Member of Parliament for Wiltshire; his interests were not in politics, but in literature and the stage. His The Castle Spectre (1797) was a popular stage play, which enjoyed a long run. He also translated a number of works from German, such as The Minister (1797, a translation from Friedrich Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe).

2.        Lewis became deeply influenced by German literature in July 1792, when he travelled to Saxe- Weimar-Eisenach (where Sir Brooke Boothby was British ambassador to the court of Duke Karl August) to prepare himself for a diplomatic career in accordance with his father’s wishes. During his stay, he developed an interest in folklore, mediated through Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose Volkslieder (Leipzig, 1778–9), contained a number of Scandinavian songs and poems.

3.        The text of “The Water King” was first incorporated into The Monk, among a number of other passages drawing on folklore. It appears as a song performed outside the convent of St. Clare, Spain, where a subplot of the action takes place. In the lead up to the song, Theodore, Don Raymond’s faithful page, describes how Danes believe in elemental “Daemons”. The Water–King is such creature, who wears the appearance of a “Warrior” and “employs himself in luring young Virgins into his snare”. According to Theodore, the moral of the ballad is the danger “for young Women to abandon themselves to their passions”. [1]  The supernatural ballad is here given in a context, where it plays on the credulity and superstition of the Catholic nuns in the convent. In this way, it forms part of Lewis’s attacks on Catholicism throughout the novel.

4.        Lewis translated the poem from Herder’s Volkslieder collection, where it has the title “Der Wassermann”. Herder knew the ballad from the Danish collector Anders Sørensen Vedel’s It Hundrede udvaalde Danske Viser (1591; One Hundred Selected Ballads), which was expanded by Peder Syv with another 100 ballads in 1695, with eight re-printings in the eighteenth century.

5.        Herder’s ambition was to rediscover the true and authentic voice of national character through folklore (the collection was later re-titled Stimmen der Völker in Liedern). But what Lewis provides is an English version of “Der Wassermann”, which pays little attention to philological principles of translation. Instead it is a free adaption focussing on the horror of the tale. The theme of abduction and drowning (only hinted at in the original) are expanded to constitute a long melodrama, to which are added other shock effects. Nonetheless, Lewis still emphasized the provenance of the song in genuine folklore, footnoting the piece (in the 1798 edition of The Monk) with the information that he has since met with two old Scottish ballads resembling it.

6.        The “Water King” was reprinted in Lewis’s collection Tales of Wonder (1801; actually late 1800), a two-volume edition with 60 ballads. The first volume contains original poems and translations by Lewis (17 poems), Walter Scott (5), Robert Southey (8) and others. Lewis included other Danish ballads, “Elvers’s Hoh”, “The Erl-King”, and “The Erl-King’s Daughter”, as well as two Norse songs, “The Sword of Angantyr” and “King Hakon’s Death Song”, all of which Herder had translated into German.


The Water-King (1800)

Danish. – M.G. Lewis

The Original is in Kiampe Viiser

With gentle murmur flow’d the tide,
While by the fragrant flowery side
The lovely maid with carols gay
To Mary’s church pursued her way.

The Water–Fiend’s malignant eye
Along the banks beheld her hie;
Straight to his mother-witch he sped,
And thus in suppliant accents said:

— “Oh! mother! mother! now advise,
“How I may yonder maid surprise:
“Oh! mother! mother! now explain,
“How I may yonder maid obtain.“—

The witch she gave him armour white;
She formed him like a gallant knight:
Of water clear next made her hand
A steed, whose housings were of sand.

The Water—King then swift he went;
To Mary’s church his steps he bent:
He bound his courser to the door,
And paced the church-yard three times four.

His courser to the door bound he,
And paced the church-yard four times three:
Then hasten’d up the aisle, where all
The people flocked, both great and small.

The priest said, as the knight drew near,
—“And wherefore comes the white chief here?“—
The lovely maid, she smiled aside;
—“Oh! would I were the white chief’s bride!“—

He stepp’d o’er benches one and two;
—“Oh! lovely maid, I die for You!“—
He stepp’d o’er benches two and three;
—“Oh! lovely maiden, go with me!“—

Then sweetly she smiled the lovely maid;
And while she gave her hand, she said,
—“Betide me joy, betide me woe,
O’er hill, o’er dale, with thee I go.“—

The priest their hands together joins:
They dance, while clear the moon-beam shines;
And little thinks the maiden bright
Her Partner is the Water-Spright.

Oh! had some spirit deigned to sing,
“Your bride-groom is the Water–King!“—
The maid had fear and hate confessed,
And cursed the hand which then she press’d

But nothing giving cause to think
How near she stray’d to danger’s brink,
Still on she went, and hand in hand
The lovers reached the yellow sand.

—“Ascend this Steed with me, my dear;
“We needs must cross the streamlet here;
“Ride boldly in: it is not deep;
“The winds are hush’d, the billows sleep.“—

Thus spoke the Water–King. The maid
Her traitor-bridegroom’s wish obey’d:
And soon she saw the courser lave
Delighted in his parent wave.

“Stop! stop! my love! The waters blue
“E’en now my shrinking foot bedew.“—
—“Oh! lay aside your fears, sweet heart!
“We now have reach’d the deepest part.“—

—“ Stop! Stop! my love! For oh!
“The waters rise above my knee.“—
—“Oh! lay aside your fears, sweet heart!
“We now have reach’d the deepest part.”

—“Stop! stop! for God’s sake, stop! for oh!
“The waters o’er my bosom flow!“ —
Scarce was the word pronounced, when knight
And courser vanish’d from her sight.

She shrieks, but shrieks in vain; for high
The wild winds rising dull the cry;
The fiend exults; the billows dash,
And o’er their hapless victim wash.

Three times while struggling with the stream,
The lovely maid was heard to scream;
But when the tempest’s rage was o’er,
The lovely maid was seen no more.

Warn’d by this tale, ye damsels fair,
To whom you give your love beware!
Believe not every handsome knight,
And dance not with the Water–Spright!

As I have taken great liberties with this Ballad, and have been such questioned as to my share in it, I shall here subjoin a literal translation. [2] 


—“Oh! mother, give me good counsel;
“How shall I obtain the lovely maid?“—

She form’d for him a horse of clear water,
With a bridle and saddle of sand.

She arm’d him like a gallant knight,
Then rode he into Mary’s churchyard.

He bound his horse to the church door,
And paced round the church three times and four.

The Waterman enter’d the church;
The people throng’d about him both great and small.

The priest was then standing at the altar.
—“Who can yonder white chieftain be?“—

The lovely maiden laugh’d aside —
—“Oh! would the white chieftain were for me!“—

He stepp’d over one stool, and over two;
—“Oh! maiden, give me thy faith and troth!“—

He stepp’d over stools three and four,
—“Oh! lovely maiden go with me!“

The lovely maid gave him her hand.
—“There haft thou my troth; I follow thee readily.“—

They went out with the wedding guests:
They danced gaily, and without thought of danger.

They danced on till they reached the strand:
And now they were alone hand in hand.

—“Lovely maiden, hold my horse:
“The prettied little vessel will I bring for you.“—

And when they came to the white hand,
All the ships made to land.

And when they came to deep water
The lovely maiden sank to the ground.

Long heard they who flood on the shore,
How the lovely maiden shriek’s among the waves.

I advise you, damsels, as earnestly as I can,
Dance not with the Water-man.

Source: Tales of Wonder, Collected by M. G. Lewis Esq. M.P. (Dublin: P. Wogan, 1805), 46–50.


[1] M. G. Lewis, Ambrosio, or the Monk: A Romance, 4 rev. ed., vol. 3 (London: J. Bell, 1798), 14–16. BACK

[2] As it is evident from this attempt at a more literal translation, the above adaptation provided four lines of English for every two lines in the original. BACK