Bram Stokers’ use of Gottfried Bürger’s Ballad “Lenore” in Dracula (1897)

Bürger’s “Lenore”- A ballad about the undead

“Lenore” was a ballad written in 1774 by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794) a German poet from the Sturm und Drang period. It’s one of the earliest pieces of texts containing references to the undead in European literature. It became quite famous in its days and was translated into English and French1. We know it became a part of the literary text books for many Gothic authors as well. Not only Stoker but also Edgar Allan Poe knew about the ballad. The text is about a young woman named Lenore2 and the story goes that she was recently married, but her husband Wilhelm died suddenly. Lenore then curses Heaven because of her loss of the husband (who died in the Seven Years’ War3). As a result of the curse the soldier returns. Wilhelm writes a letter to her with a greeting from far away Bohemia. He writes he left long after midnight and wants to take her with him. One line goes: “Sieh hin, sieh her! Der Mond scheint hell. Wir und die Toten reiten schnell!”//Look here, look there! The moon shines bright. We and the dead rides fast! The term “die Toten reiten schnell” was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula (1897) as a short reference.

Lenore and Wilhelm rides to their marriage bed.
At midnight, a mysterious stranger who looks like Wilhelm knocks on the door searching for Lenore and asks her to accompany him on horseback to their marriage bed. Lenore happily gets on the stranger’s black steed and the two ride at a frenetic pace, under the moonlight, along a path filled with eerie landscapes. Terrorised, Lenore demands to know why they are riding so fast, to which he responds that they are doing so because “the dead travel fast” (“die Todten reiten schnell”). Lenore asks Wilhelm to “leave the dead alone” (“Laß sie ruhn, die Todten”).

At sunrise, their journey ends and they arrive at the cemetery’s doors. As the horse goes through the tombstones, the knight begins to lose its human appearance, and is revealed as Death, a skeleton with a scythe and an hourglass. The marriage bed is shown to be the grave where, together with his shattered armour, Wilhelm’s skeleton lies. The ground beneath Lenore’s feet begins to crumble and the spirits, dancing in the moonlight, surround dying Lenore, declaring that “no one is to quarrel with God in Heaven” (“mit Gott im Himmel hadre nicht”). However, Lenore, punished with death, still has hope for forgiveness (“des Leibes bist du ledig/Gott sei der Seele gnädig”).

The Ballad contains some common themes associated with the period; such as the dead rider, the night, the return of the dead. There are also some critique towards established Religion of the time visible in Lenore’s loose faith in God. Take notice on how the dialogue between Lenore and her mother is presented. The mother is more conservative and stricter with religious matters. Some research has been done concerning the ballad. In the work Sensus communis: contemporary trends in comparative literature (1986) Peter Boerner address some issues in the text “Bürger’s Ballad Lenore in Germany, France and England”. Boerner stresses the folk-lore connections visible and the fact that the story has various endings though mostly fatal. In one version Lenore is saved by the crowing of a cock, but in most of the stories she perishes.

 Lenore in Stoker’s Dracula (1897)

Abraham “Bram” Stoker (8 November 1847 – 20 April 1912) was an Irish author, best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as the personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned. The story of Dracula is told in epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and ships’ log entries, whose narrators are the novel’s protagonists, and occasionally supplemented with newspaper clippings relating events not directly witnessed. The events portrayed in the novel take place chronologically and largely in England and Transylvania during the 1890s and all transpire within the same year between the 3rd of May and the 6th of November. A short note is located at the end of the final chapter written 7 years after the events outlined in the novel.

The main charachters in Dracula

Most people know the contents of the novel but may want to repeat the main charachters and their functions:

  • Jonathan Harker: A solicitor sent to do business with Count Dracula; Mina’s fiancé and prisoner in Dracula’s castle.
  • Count Dracula: A Transylvanian noble who has purchased a house in London.
  • Wilhelmina “Mina” Harker (née Murray): A schoolteacher and Jonathan Harker’s fiancée (later his wife).
  • Lucy Westenra: A 19-year-old aristocrat; Mina’s best friend; Arthur’s fiancée and Dracula’s first victim.
  • Arthur Holmwood: Lucy’s suitor and later fiancé. He inherits the title of Lord Godalming upon his father’s death.
  • John Seward: A doctor; one of Lucy’s suitors and a former student of Van Helsing.
  • Abraham Van Helsing: A Dutch doctor, lawyer and professor; John Seward’s teacher.
  • Quincey Morris: An American cowboy and explorer; and one of Lucy’s suitors.
  • Renfield: A patient at Seward’s insane asylum who has come under the influence of Dracula.
  • “Weird Sisters”: Three siren-like vampire women who serve Dracula. In some of the plays, films etc. that came after the novel they are referred to as the Brides of Dracula.

Jonathan Harker encounters Dracula for the first time

I copy-paste from wikisource’s edition of Dracula, taken from the first chapter where the reference to Bürger’s ballad can be found. In this section of the chapter Jonathan Harker travels with some Romanians to be taken to a remote place in the forest where he’ll be waiting for another carriage; and to be taken to Dracula’s Castle. Notice the official language spoken between the charachters is German. His new driver is most likely Dracula himself:

There is no carriage here. The Herr is not expected after all. He will now come on to Bukovina, and return tomorrow or the next day; better the next day.” Whilst he was speaking the horses began to neigh and snort and plunge wildly, so that the driver had to hold them up. Then, amongst a chorus of screams from the peasants and a universal crossing of themselves, a calèche, with four horses, drove up behind us, overtook us, and drew up beside the coach. I could see from the flash of our lamps, as the rays fell on them, that the horses were coal-black and splendid animals. They were driven by a tall man, with a long brown beard and a great black hat, which seemed to hide his face from us. I could only see the gleam of a pair of very bright eyes, which seemed red in the lamplight, as he turned to us. He said to the driver:—

“You are early to-night, my friend.” The man stammered in reply:—

“The English Herr was in a hurry,” to which the stranger replied:—

“That is why, I suppose, you wished him to go on to Bukovina. You cannot deceive me, my friend; I know too much, and my horses are swift.” As he spoke he smiled, and the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s “Lenore”:—

“Denn die Todten reiten schnell”—
(“For the dead travel fast.”)

The strange driver evidently heard the words, for he looked up with a gleaming smile. The passenger turned his face away, at the same time putting out his two fingers and crossing himself. “Give me the Herr’s luggage,” said the driver; and with exceeding alacrity my bags were handed out and put in the calèche. Then I descended from the side of the coach, as the calèche was close alongside, the driver helping me with a hand which caught my arm in a grip of steel; his strength must have been prodigious. Without a word he shook his reins, the horses turned, and we swept into the darkness of the Pass. As I looked back I saw the steam from the horses of the coach by the light of the lamps, and projected against it the figures of my late companions crossing themselves. Then the driver cracked his whip and called to his horses, and off they swept on their way to Bukovina. As they sank into the darkness I felt a strange chill, and a lonely feeling came over me; but a cloak was thrown over my shoulders, and a rug across my knees, and the driver said in excellent German:—

“The night is chill, mein Herr, and my master the Count bade me take all care of you. There is a flask of slivovitz (the plum brandy of the country) underneath the seat, if you should require it.” I did not take any, but it was a comfort to know it was there all the same. I felt a little strangely, and not a little frightened. I think had there been any alternative I should have taken it, instead of prosecuting that unknown night journey. The carriage went at a hard pace straight along, then we made a complete turn and went along another straight road. It seemed to me that we were simply going over and over the same ground again; and so I took note of some salient point, and found that this was so. I would have liked to have asked the driver what this all meant, but I really feared to do so, for I thought that, placed as I was, any protest would have had no effect in case there had been an intention to delay. By-and-by, however, as I was curious to know how time was passing, I struck a match, and by its flame looked at my watch; it was within a few minutes of midnight. This gave me a sort of shock, for I suppose the general superstition about midnight was increased by my recent experiences. I waited with a sick feeling of suspense.

Resources

Dracula – Full text of Bram Stoker’s novel available through wikisource.

Lenore – From litteraturatlas.de

Rosetti’s translation of “Lenore” – English

Scholz, Bernhard, János Riesz, Peter Boerner, and Henry Remak. 1986. Sensus communis: contemporary trends in comparative literature. Tübingen: Narr.

wikipedia.org [various entries]


  1. “During the last quarter of the eighteenth century and up to the nineteenth, Lenore was widely read in all those nations of Europe where the Romantic movement reigned. Comparable in popularity only to Werther, Childe Harold or Réne.” (Boerner 1986, p. 305) 
  2. Sometimes spelled Leonore, Leonora, Elenora depending on translation. 
  3. The Seven Years’ War was a war fought between 1754 and 1763, the main conflict occurring in the seven-year period from 1756 to 1763. It involved every European great power of the time except the Ottoman Empire and spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by the Kingdom of Great Britain (inc. Prussia, Portugal, Hanover, and other small German states) on one side and the Kingdom of France (inc. Austria-led Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Spain, and Sweden) on the other. Meanwhile, in India, the Mughal Empire, with the support of the French, tried to crush a British attempt to conquer Bengal. 
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