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Literature / Lenore

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Horace Vernet: "Ballad of Leonore"

"Art frighted, love? the moon rides high:
What, ho! the dead can nimbly fly!
Dost fear the dead, dear maid?"
William, from Leonora (translated by Benjamin Beresford)

"Lenore" (also translated into English as "Ellenore", "Leonora", "Leonore" and "William and Helen") is a German Gothic ballad by Gottfried August Bürger (31 December 1747 - 8 June 1794), published in 1774.

The Seven Years' War is over, and the soldiers return to their loved ones. Lenore waits impatiently for Wilhelm, her fiancé. But Wilhelm is not among the homecomers, and it dawns on Lenore that Wilhelm might be dead.

Her parents' clumsy attempts to console her only make Lenore freak out more and more, culminating in her accusing God of cruelty and injustice. Her mother warns her earnestly against the sin of blasphemy, but to no effect: Lenore declares that without Wilhelm, neither her life nor her salvation have any meaning to her.

Lenore is crying the night away in despair when, at midnight, a knock comes at the door: it is Wilhelm! Instantly, he declares to the overjoyed Lenore that he wants to marry her this very night, if only she will ride with him to his present place of residence. Though, if you know a thing or two about ghost stories, you probably know that Lenore is making a mistake when she mounts that black steed behind Wilhelm.

A straightforward ghost story based on an ancient plot (No. 365: "The Specter Bridegroom" in the Aarne-Thompson tale type index), "Lenore" struck a chord with readers, who seem to have developed an appetite for supernatural horror around the time. Its popularity also spread to Britain by way of numerous translations (there are at least ten, including one—as "William and Helen"—by Walter Scott) and made it a seminal work of Gothic Horror.

"Lenore" is also considered a seminal work for its form. In the second half of the 18th century the literary world started to get interested in folk traditions, including the songs of Bänkelsänger (who related various events and misdeeds at fairs) and the "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry". A lot of these were in monotonous, rather lame-footed verse, so Bürger as a poet decided to pay intense attention to the rhythm and used onomatopoeic words in crafting his ballad. It became a smash hit from the salons of the aristocracy to open-air recitals on fairgrounds and began a fashion for ballads among German poets, leading among other things to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe writing "The Sorcerer's Apprenctice" and "The Erl-King". So Bürger could justly be proud of his achievement and once called himself the Genghis Khan of ballads. As he wrote to his fellow poet Heinrich Christian Boie: "Is it possible that human senses something so delightful? All those who make ballads after me will indubitably be my vassals and will take their tone from me as their fief." To Boie, who lived in the same university town as he did, Bürger also wrote a "how-to" on 6 May, 1773:

"When you read it to our friends in Göttingen for the first time, then borrow a skull from someone at the medical faculty, place it next to a dim lamp, and then read. Then the hairs of everybody shall stand on end as at Macbeth."

Although it is not obvious, "Lenore" is considered a spiritual precursor of the Vampire Genre: In folk belief, the undead were especially prone to come for their beloved ones, as they supposedly wanted them to join them in death.

Original text and translations by Walter Scott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Benjamin Beresford.


  • An Aesop: Delivered by the dancing ghosts in the end: Don't quarrel with God! He's vindictive; you might end up dead.
    "Forbear! forbear! nor e'er contend,
    Though God's decrees thy heart do rend!
    Now soul and body sever
    Be mercy thine forever!"
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Lenore says her life is not worth living without Wilhelm ... so God lets Wilhelm return to take her with him—to the grave.
  • Foreign Remake: The basic plot of "Lenore" is found in many ghost stories from over the world, but Bürger seems to have taken at least some of his inspiration from the English "Sweet William's Ghost" (Child #77). The translations by William Taylor and Walter Scott in turn move the setting to England during the Crusades.
    • And then Vasily Zhukovsky worked with "Lenore" three times: first translating it, then translating it more loosely and renaming the character Lyudmila, and then remaking it completely with the heroine being called Svetlana and with a happy ending, the fiancé's death turning out to be just a dream. The final version is the best known one in Russia.
  • The Grim Reaper: Upon reaching his destination, Wilhelm transforms into a skeleton holding an hourglass and a scythe—or maybe it was Death himself posing as Wilhelm the whole time.
  • The Lost Lenore: Wilhelm is Lenore's Lost Lenore (ironically).
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Mad with grief, Lenore sacrilegiously accuses God (which has dire consequences).
  • Religious Horror: Wilhelm's return as an undead who drags Lenore to death is God's punishment for her blasphemy.
  • Resurrected Romance
  • Together in Death: Played for Horror. Lenore is overcome with despair when she realizes that her lover Wilhelm may not come back from the war, and says that she does not want to live without Wilhelm. At midnight, much to Lenore's joy, Wilhelm appears on a horse to take Lenore away with him. However, Wilhelm is, in fact, dead, and their ride ends on the graveyard where Wilhelm is buried. Lenore dies of terror on Wilhelm's grave, and thus is ultimately reunited with her lover.