When you think famous literary vampires, your mind might dart to Dracula or the Sapphic reader’s might head straight for Carmilla. Your inner eye might also be suddenly beset by a horde of sexy, often shimmering, vampires from more recent media: Edward Cullen, Blade, Eric Northman, Akasha, Lestat, Damon Salvatore, Selene… It happens. Just let your mind roam.
Finished roaming? Let’s get back to it.
These examples, of course, have more ancient forebears, both in terms of the myths, legends and folklore which inform them and in terms of literary ancestors. If you’re interested in finding out more about the folkloric roots of the vampire as it appears in Britain, you can check out this more thorough review but today let’s stick with the literary. Dracula (1897) is over 150 years younger than the first literary vampire. And no, it wasn’t Lord Ruthven from John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819). He wasn’t even the first aristocratic vampire nor was it the first vampiric short story although it was, admittedly, the first British vampire short story. The first literary vampire was the protagonist of August Heinrich Ossenfelder’s ‘Der Vampir’ (1748). Carmilla (1872) also has sapphic ancestors who predate her by at least 70 years, such as Oneiza in Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and Brunhilda in the short story ‘Wake Not the Dead’ (1800) by Ludwick Tieck.
In other blogs, I’ll talk a bit more about some of those short stories but today it’s all about the poetry and one poem in particular – John Stagg’s ‘The Vampire’ (1810).
The first vampire poem was Ossenfelder’s ‘Der Vampir’ – a tale of warning, lust and dark desires in which the speaker tries to wheedle past his beloved’s moral rejection of his sexual advances. The only option, for him, is to turn vampire and teach her how futile her mother’s teachings really are… It was a German poem and we’ll see again and again the influence of German works and its terror literature on the British tradition. The influence was often overt and acknowledged – let’s not forget that the famous Diodati ghost story competition arose from reading a book of originally German tales. Translations of German works were popular and Gothic authors, such as Matthew Lewis, often noted the debts owed by their own work to German authors, tales, poetry and drama. With the vampire, as with many aspects of the Gothic, the Germans got there first. And the British, when they finally started in with their own vampire stories years later, followed the German school also in producing first and foremost vampire poetry.
The first British literary vampires mostly get bit parts. In Thalaba the Destroyer, the titular Thalaba’s beloved is killed and reappears as a vampire. In notes to the poem, Southey explores AT LENGTH a number of different vampiric reports and stories (borrowing heavily from Don Calmet). Basing his depiction on stories which feature the vampire as a human body animated by a demonic spirit, he has ‘Oneiza’ taunt and mock Thalaba, attempting to divert him from his divine mission. When the vampire is killed, Oneiza’s soul gives its audible thanks before disappearing. It’s a lengthy narrative poem and the vampiric incident takes up little space. It’s an interesting early appearance of the vampire though. Southey’s use of elaborate and lengthy notes suggests the existing need to still introduce and delineate the figure of the vampire.
A vampire, or rather the possibility of vampirism, also appears in Byron’s ‘The Giaour’ (1813). In this appearance, the Christian Giaour is being cursed for his crimes by a Muslim fisherman who mixes Islamic mythology with European conceptions of the vampire (the European roots of the myth for Byron are made clear in his footnotes). You can find a full version here but the verse below gives an idea of how the vampire is imagined in this text.
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
There’s nothing particularly sexy about this vampire. Still clinging closely to the folkloric origins of the vampire, this poetic appearance imagines the vampire as a revenant with little to no control over his own actions, destined to prove the destruction of his house and the murderer of his family…
I’ll introduce the female vampires of the early Gothic in another post as they deserve their own space. Today we’re ending with the first entire poem dedicated to the vampire in the British tradition: John Stagg’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1810). It’s a fascinating poem which starts to explore the themes of sexuality and particularly queer sexuality which have become so much a feature of the vampire.
The poem relates the story of Herman, who, one evening as he lay in bed, foretells his own death to an anxious wife. She’s overcome with worry and his increased rate of languishing and he informs her of the cause: his ‘dear friend’ Sigismund.
Herman describes his vampiric visitor and insists a) there’s nothing to be done! and b) he’s destined to return and do the exact thing to her. He lays it on thick with a tale of inevitable doom: an inevitable doom tied to a quite clearly sexualised blood drinking
The one problem with his reading of the situation is the fact that Gertrude does indeed manage to escape by the simple expedient of killing him (well… rekilling him after his initial death).
And she manages to kill him in the most pointed way possible, simultaneously refusing to become a victim to this sort of morally infectious, sexualised blood list and pointing to the heart of the problem. The queerness of the vampire in the early British Gothic was not celebrated or positively represented as we usually find today. Those queer vampires were dead men walking – a literalisation of a homophobic understanding of illicit or transgressive sexual identity as a moral and spiritual death sentence.
Happily the vampire as a figure as evolved and many of the negative users of the figure – anti-semitism, rabid homophobia – have been largely removed from the vampire in the current imaginary. I think that Sigismund and Herman would have fit in a lot better with our modern day vampires and if you’re anything like me, you might just be head canoning them a happy ending.
If you’d like to hear the whole poem – I did a reading here