Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs



I do not aim here at a comprehensive or accurate history. The songs mentioned below are an arbitrary selection generated by my own acquaintance and supplemented by some information readily available online. Apart from the patchiness of my field of data, there are doubtless errors. Very likely not every artist credited was the composer or even the first to record a given song, and a few dates are missing but such details have little relevance to my interest in the texts as poetry and my focus on the investigation of image systems and the nature of popular culture.


Literature is particularly effective in elucidating the irrational, ambivalences, paradoxes, and mysteries. Most prominent in this last category are those of love, death, and the divine. And art properly expresses the broad range of human response. Thus love songs may idealize the beloved or may describe the pains of separation; they may also express pure lust. The hokum genre of blues songs popular in the twenties and thirties which developed out of minstrel and tent shows specializes, like similar calypso and British music hall songs, in witty double entendres and high-spirited enthusiasm for sex with no place for romance or any emotion other than physical desire.

A great deal of popular music, indeed of all poetry, is concerned with love, including its physical side. Both “jazz” and “rock and roll” originally referred to the sexual act. The image systems deployed in hokum songs are specialized, emphasizing the mechanical, bestial, comic aspect of desire, what Frye would have called the low mimetic mode. Though a few songs such as Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘em Dry” (1935) are outrightly obscene, most hokum songs depend for their effect on the playful elaboration of transparent metaphors in which the images reinforce the jocular, self-mocking, good-time tone of these party songs.

The assertive physicality of hokum songs is evident in the early classic “It’s Tight Like That” recorded in 1928 by Georgia Tom who formed a group called the Hokum Boys with Tampa Red,. [1] The song, very likely using scraps of earlier songs and covered by many later artists including Louis Armstrong and Leadbelly, opens with a wry apologia for its off-color content.

Listen here folks, gonna sing a little song
Don’t get mad, we don’t mean no harm [2]

A veritable compendium of hokum motifs, the lyrics pass through a range of references, including to roosters, mules, and dogs, while food references include separate uses of bread and jelly. The singers make clever use of the mechanics of the sexual act: “Uncle Bill came home about a half past ten/ Put the key in the hole but he couldn't get in.”

The euphemistic use of “it” appears in many other songs such as Papa Charlie Jackson’s “You Put It In, I‘ll Take It Out” (1934), "If It Don't Fit (Don't Force It)" by Lil Johnson (1937), “Take Your Hand Off It” (1937), “Wet It” by Freddie “Half-Pint” Jaxon (1937), and “She Done Sold It Out” by the Memphis Jug Band (1934). Nonsense words can serve the same purpose as in Blind Blake’s “Diddie Wa Diddie” (1929) or King Solomon Hill’s “Whoopee Blues” (1932).

The bestial aspect of hokum sexuality is emphasized by songs using animal imagery. Perhaps best expressed in the impudent tone of James "Stump" Johnson’s 1928 "The Duck Yas-Yas-Yas" with its insistently physical “put him on the table with his legs stickin' up” (as well as automotive references). Tampa Red in a 1941 recording pleads “Let Me Play With Your Poodle.” A great many songs feature phallic snakes, among them Blind Boy Fuller’s 1935 “I’m A Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” in which Fuller makes extravagant boasts about his ability to “rattle” “all the time.” Memphis Minnie’s 1934 “Stinging Snake Blues” declares “I got a stinging snake, I love sometimes better than I do myself.”

Hokum clearly contrasts with other uses of similar imagery. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan,” for example, is entirely different in its mysterious insect imagery and its deep and plaintive tone, a real cri de coeur. The meaning of the black snake is here problematized in a way that does occur in hokum songs in which the coded meaning of the animal is perfectly clear, and the tune light-hearted, recreational music.

Likewise Slim Harpo’s classic “I’m a King Bee” (1957) (covered by the Rolling Stones and many other bands) is too intensely driving and dramatically boastful to sound like hokum, while Robert Hills’s “I Had a Gal for the Last Fifteen Years” (1936) fits the genre with its series of interchangeable images (hen and rooster, groundhog and hole, pork chops “to grease your fat lips”).

The purely appetitive aspect of sexuality is also highlighted by the use of food imagery in which the object of desire is not merely objectified, but actually consumed. Probably the most widespread food image in blues is jelly and jelly roll, associated with female genitals since the early 17th century. [3] When, at the very dawn of jazz, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton adopted his sobriquet and released the "Original Jelly Roll Blues" as his first recording, he meant to associate his music unmistakably with more fleshly pleasures. [4] This term, however, perhaps because if its very ubiquity, rarely appears in true hokum in which part of the appeal is solving the implied riddle. A song like “Fogyism” by Ida Cox (1928) lacks the ebullience of hokum. In it the point is the plaintive lack of love that leads some to seek supernatural signs instead of learning from the obvious.

When your man comes home evil, tells you you are getting old,
When your man come home evil, tells you you are getting old;
That's a true sign he's got someone else baking his jelly roll.

On the other hand George Carter’s “Hot Jelly Roll Blues” (1929) has the levity of a hokum tune. Here jellyroll represents a woman but also female desire: “it make a deaf woman hear” and even “made grandma marry her youngest grandson.” It expands to indicate vitality itself with the power to make “a little baby talk.” Clifford Gibson’s “She Rolls it Slow” (1931) also participates in the hokum spirit. Though indicating possessiveness by saying “I got a little woman” who “can bake good jellyroll,” he has no difficulty with a rival “She roll it for Uncle Bill, he like to lost his mind/ He want her to keep rolling it : all the time.” Lil Johnson in her “You Never Miss Your Jelly Roll Till Your Jelly Roller’s Gone” (1929) says she has been “whooping” all night long before proclaiming her love-longing.

“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” by Louis Armstrong had been an instrumental and the music remained the focus even after Don Raye added lyrics in 1941. Nonetheless the definition for “barbecue” in Cab Calloway’s “Hepster’s Dictionary” as “a girl friend, a beauty” was doubtless always part of the song’s meaning. Here the declaration “I’m most wile about ma jelly roll” is imbedded in a lengthy and moving lyrical lament quite distant from the playful hokum songs. (Many of the same lines including the jelly roll reference occur in versions of “St. Louis Blues” by Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and others.) Similarly, in “Jelly Jelly” Earl Hines (1941) the music is paramount. Even in the Louis Armstrong "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' this Jelly Roll" relies more on music and scatting than on its use of “jelly roll,” here repeated like a mantra.

Sausages are the food of choice for Bessie Smith (“Hot Dog Man” 1927), Butterbeans and Susie (“I Wanna Hot Dog for my Roll” 1927), Bo Carter (“Please Warm My Weiner” 1935), and Lil Johnson (“Sam the Hot Dog Man” 1936). Lil Johnson’s "Press My Button (Ring My Bell)" (1936) includes the lines "Come on baby, let's have some fun / Just put your hot dog in my bun." The implications of bananas are equally obvious in songs by Memphis Minnie (“Banana Man Blues” 1934) and Bo Carter ("Banana In Your Fruit Basket" 1931). (The song also uses images of a tub and washboard, a churn and dasher, cloth and needle, and meat and knife). Further variations are legion from Maggie Jones’ “Anybody Here Want To Try My Cabbage?” (1924) (with Louis Armstong and Fletcher Henderson accompanying) to Lil Johnson’s “Hot Nuts (Get ‘em from the Peanut Man)” (1936) and Bessie Smith’s “I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl” (1931). Smith sings, “I need a little sugar in my bowl/ I need a little hot dog on my roll . . . I need a little steam-heat on my floor . . . It's dark down there looks like a snake!” Finally, there are no less than thirty-five songs using the term “pigmeat” in Michael Taft’s compendious anthology. [5]

In the sly insinuations of hokum, virtually every profession has a sexual implication. The locus classicus for vocational double entendre is Bo Carter’s “All Round Man” (1931). He begins with the relatively oblique line “I ain’t no butcher . . . but I can do your cutting ‘till the butcher-man come,” then proceeds to more outlandish and direct figures. Though no plumber, he can do “your screwing”; no miller, he can do “grinding,” no milkman, yet can “pull your titties,” no spring-man, but can “bounce your springs, and finally no auger-man, but he can “bore your hole.” Whistling Bob Howe & Frankie Griggs sing, “I’m the ice man, call me when you get hot” [6] in "The Coldest Stuff in Town" (1935). Among Memphis Minnie’s contributions to the topos are “My Butcher Man” (1933) and “Me and my Chauffeur” 1941.

These characteristics of hokum imagery are to a large extent true as well for related genres such as ribald songs from the English music hall such as “My Girl’s Pussy” by Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys (1931). Doubtless the best-known song of this sort to Americans is Billy Cotton’s “The Marrow Song” (1952) which Tim Curry performed in an immensely entertaining version on Saturday Night Live as “The Zucchini Song” in 1981. The calypso tradition is rich and wide, including such tunes as Calypso Mama’s “Don’t Touch Me Tomato,” The Mighty Panther’s “The Big Bamboo”(1963), and Lord Kitchener’s delightful “Muriel and de Bug” (1953).

It was in calypso in fact that the great double entendre songs of the fifties are to be found. In American popular music the genre faded, though Dave Bartholomew recorded "My Ding-a-Ling" in 1952 (covered by Chuck Berry in 1972). The song featured as well in the repertoire of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts who maintained a lively career without the aid of radio doing songs such as “Hot Nuts,” “Big Jugs,” and “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box.” Indeed the band plays on fourteen years after its founder’s demise.

In these songs one finds nothing of the psychological depth of other blues, no clue of the actual tangles of relations between the sexes, of profound loss or longing or of guilt or recrimination. Indeed the songs convey little except enthusiastic lust. The image systems reinforce this view of sex which, partial though it be, reflects universal experience. Like flirtation, the playful deployment of a sizable battery of analogies is all in fun. Yet the fact is that euphemism, joking, and displacement occur around topics about which people are uneasy or anxious. Just as Stick McGhee’s “Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee” (1947) [7] celebrates alcohol for an audience surely familiar with the ugly side of drink, Bessie Smith’s “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” (1922) expresses only enthusiasm and delight, mounting even to jouissance. Though not everything, that is surely enough.

Daddy you really knows your stuff : when you take me for a buggy ride
I like you when you got your habits on : you can shift a gear with so much pride
I gets a funny feeling : when you gaze into my eyes
You give me such a thrill : you make my thermometer rise
Daddy you as sweet as you can be : when you take me for a buggy ride.






1. Remarkably, Georgia Tom (also known as Barrelhouse Tom) who wrote dozens of risqué songs, following his conversion in 1933, became Thomas A. Dorsey, the seminal gospel composer who wrote "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and many other religious standards. Dorsey much later claimed that the title phrase “It’s Tight Like That” had no sexual meaning (see Stephen Calt, Barrelhouse Words. University of Illinois Press, 2009. 247). This is altogether implausible given the nature of the song and other lyric uses of the phrase. (It is quite possible of course that a sexual term might undergo semantic generalization and come to signify approval in general.) “Beedle Um Bum” is also consistently suggestive.

Oh, my beedle um bum
Come and see me if you ain't had none
It makes a dumb man speak, makes a lame man run
You'll miss something if you don't get none
The Hokum Boys, "Beedle Um Bum," 1928.

2. Compare with the opening of Tampa Red’s “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” (1942): “Lookee here baby, listen to my song/ Don't get mad, because it ain't no harm.”

3. Cf. "Give her cold jelly to take up her belly, And once a day swinge her again" John Fletcher, The Begger's Bush (1622). The OED lists use of “jelly” meaning simply “good, worthy, excellent” from the 16th through the 19th centuries.

4. The nickname was adopted by others such as Jelly Thomson and Jelly Williams. For these names and the unlikely proposal of an African origin for the term see David Dalby, “The African Element in American English” in Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out: Communication in Urban Black America (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1972).

5. See Michael Taft Blues Lyric Poetry: An Anthology and Blues Lyric Poetry: A Concordance (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983). Though these books are absurdly expensive, anyone may use the site http://www.dylan61.se/michael%20taft,%20blues%20anthology.txt.WebConcordance/framconc.htm.

6. At a time when many deliveries were made to the home, the daytime visits of tradesmen became a subject for gossip and for liaisons.

7. The nonsense syllables of the title replaced the original version’s “goddamn” and motherfucker.”



Afternote I A Case of Early White Hokum

While hokum surfaces in early African-American blues music most frequently, there was some significant cultural crossover . When the white Chattanooga-based "brother duet" The Allen Brothers recorded a hit version of "Salty Dog Blues" refashioned as "Bow Wow Blues" in 1927 in which lovers are compared to cars in the manner of Bessie Smith he's like an old worn out Ford Put It Right Here (or Keep It Out There” (1928)
In fact, the Allen Brothers were so adept at performing white blues that in 1927, Columbia mistakenly released their "Laughin' and Cryin' Blues" in the "race" series instead of the "old-time" series. (Not seeing the humor in it, the Allens sued and promptly moved to the Victor label.) [2]


Afternote II Additional Titles

Below are listed other songs using similar imagery yet not mentioned above. More exhaustive and authoritative lists are available in books and online. This is meant merely for the convenience of those who might like to browse a few more titles.

Archia, Tom & His All Stars. “Fishin‘ Pole” (1947)
Carter, Bo. “Don't Mash My Digger So Deep” (1936)
Carter, Bo. "Let Me Roll Your Lemon" (1935)
Carter, Bo. "My Pencil Won't Write No More" (1931)
Carter, Bo. “Pin In Your Cushion" (1931)
Carter, Bo. “Your Biscuits are Big Enough for Me” (1936)
Chatman, Bo. “My Baby” (1940)
Churchill, Savanah, written by Irene Higginbotham. “Fat Meat is Good Meat” (1942)
Cox, Ida. “Southern Woman's Blues” (1925)
The Dominoes. "Sixty Minute Man" (1951)
The "5" Royales. "Laundromat Blues" (1953)
The Four Clefs. “I Like Pie, I Like Cake” (1941).
Harris, Wynonie. "I Like My Baby's Pudding” (1950)
Harris, Wynonie. "Keep On Churnin’” (1952)
The Hokum Boys. "I Had to Give Up Gym" (1929)
Jackson, Bull Moose. “Big 10-Inch Record” (1952)
Jackson, Jim. "Hesitation Blues" (1930)
Johnson, Edith North. “Honeydripper Blues” (1929)
Johnson, Lil. "Meat Balls" (1937)
McTell, Blind Willie. “Georgia Rag” (1931)
McTell, Blind Willie. "Let Me Play with Your Yo-Yo" (1933)
Memphis Minnie. “Bumble Bee” (1930)
Moore, Kid Prince. “Honey Dripping Papa” (1936)
Rhodes, Todd & Connie Allen. "Rocket 69" (1951)
The Sultans. "Lemon Squeezing Daddy" (1951)
Waller, Fats and Ed Kirkeby. “All That Meat and No Potatoes”(1941)
Washington, Dinah. “Big Long Slidin' Thing” (1954)
Williams, Joe. “Little Leg Woman” (1935)
Williamson, Sonny Boy. “Honey Bee Blues” (1938)
Wilson, Leola B. “Back Biting Bee Blues” (1926)





Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote]

The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama (Baskervill)

Unfortunately, this book and many like it no longer are available from Dover which for many years served a unique role by keeping a lengthy list of worthy old books in print. What an amazing catalogue they once had, and all sewn and costing only a dollar or two! The chit-chat in their editorial offices must have been marvelous, among colleagues who could see the value in reissuing the autobiographies of both P. T. Barnum and Casanova, Sam Loyd’s puzzles, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, Ker’s Epic and Romance, reprints of Müller’s Sacred Books of the East, and Andrew Lang’s collections of folk stories for children.

Charles Read Baskervill’s The Elizabethan Jig, published originally by the University of Chicago in 1929, is a monument of what might seem from today’s perspective a golden age of scholarship. A leisurely and comprehensive survey of a variety of associated songs, skits, dramas, and dances, the book forged quite new territory in its attention to neglected texts and its enthusiasm (perhaps extending now and then to over-enthusiasm) for tracing folk sources. The book sheds much light on popular comedy and includes a considerable collection of original texts, including German Singspiele. This is the sort of volume that would cost a hundred and fifty dollars today (even assuming an author’s subsidy) could it even find a publisher.


The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Gissing)

The Signet paperbacks were part of that glorious age in which most of the world’s classics were easily available to virtually anyone. Signets were neither particularly attractive (like Doubleday Anchor editions were) nor were they well-made (like Dover books), but they were cheap and textually reliable. My copy of The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft is dated 1961. By contrast, a glance at Signet’s current offerings on B & N’s page today features horoscopes and sports trivia.

Even Henry Ryecroft would have been shocked, I think, to find civilization in such rapid decline. The introduction in my edition by V. S. Pritchett describes the book as “elusive,” “evasive,” and “weary.” “The voice is of one who has given up.” Ryecroft (and Gissing by implication) present the “self-accusing, self-consuming face of failure, the scornful silence of the lonely man.” To Pritchett the book’s charm consists solely in its “exposition of the mind of a scholar, of one who lives by the dreams of literature.” Naturally we who read the book are likely to be susceptible to the same dreams.

A reader such as I who lived for years on an income well below what the government called the poverty line might seem his ideal reader. Like Gissing’s Ryecroft, I sometimes felt as though I had learned sufficient Classical Greek to disqualify me for any employment. Like him I taught in various circumstances in which I found myself ineffective and unfit but where I persisted because I seemed even more unfit for other vocations. Like him I felt at home in a library.

Yet I would not care to be thought Ryecroft’s double. His studied modesty cannot compensate for his ego’s defensiveness expressed in misanthropy and in the absence of a lover. His fierce disgust at modern commercial culture leads him to be politically radical, but he has ambivalence about the working class, and his grandiosely elitist temperament leads him to consider himself an arch-conservative.

One might think from Gissing’s scholarly interest and declared bookishness that The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft would be full (like this site) of literary criticism. But it is not. Most of the pieces are psychological self-reflection and meditations on society. Many precise and sometimes pretty natural descriptions appear in keeping with the book’s arrangement following the course of the seasons.

Such seasonal descriptions have been more appreciated in Japan where the book has found, perhaps, more readers than in the U.K.. Since Tokubotu Hirata declared it his favorite book in 1908, a number of Japanese translations appeared, some published in periodicals. It became then a common choice for reading passages in English textbooks. It does, surely, share something of the tone of the great Heian Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon though the one was written by a wealthy aristocrat and the other by a constantly struggling resident of Grub Street.


Music for Chameleons (Capote)

I found a great deal to enjoy in Truman Capote’s late collection of pieces, many of which had appeared in magazines (The New Yorker, Interview, McCalls, New York, and Esquire). Though some feel Capote’s late work has little value, these pieces seem to me to offer wit, entertainment, and an occasional note of pathos. Further, he continues to explore the territory between fiction and nonfiction which he had made so much his own with In Cold Blood. Here he offers an account that pretends to be veracious (“Handcarved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime”), but which indulges in such improbable imaginative excesses that he cannot have expected anyone to take him at his word. (The story involves, for instance, an episode of murder by snakes injected with amphetamines.) It includes also the very amusing (and also unlikely) story of a day with his cleaning lady “A Day’s Work,” “Then It All Came Down” (a visit with Manson’s friend Bobby Beausoleil), , “A Beautiful Child” characterizing Marilyn Monroe, and “Derring-do” in which Pearl Bailey helps him evade the cops on his trail.
There is much more as well, though the ending piece is weak indeed. There may be no great works here, or even bits one would return to, but Capote’s charm holds for me. Though the murder may be made of whole cloth and the celebrities misrepresented, my wife and I read it out loud to no loss of good effect. In “Hello, Stranger,” he paints a portrait of a man ruined by what he claims to be false accusations of pedophilia. Whether Capote thinks his friend has done anything reprehensible, whether he is in fact guilty or innocent, or whether he exists at all seem matters of little moment. Did magazines as recently as the seventies print better material than they do today?

“Monk” Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste



Matthew Lewis’ The Monk has been popular since its publication over two hundred years ago. A contemporary American may recognize the pleasure it yields as a “good read” and its secure place in the “Gothic novel” chapter of literary histories while feeling that the very qualities that make it enduringly popular bar it from what critics may regard as the more sublime higher reaches of Parnassus. Coleridge’s early review of the book [1] defines its strengths and weaknesses with considerable insight but his analysis is marred by his expressed distaste for the norms of popular art. Coleridge looks with condescension on characteristics that belong to popular art, failing to understand that reaffirming people’s received ideas is as great a part of literature as challenging them, and that the “cheap thrills” of the book are appropriate to its genre.

Coleridge’s essay does open with a consideration of the book’s widespread appeal, noting that “the horrible and the preternatural have usually seized on the popular taste, at the rise and decline of literature. Most powerful stimulants, they can never be required except by the torpor of an unawakened, or the languor of an exhausted, appetite. The same phaenomenon, therefore, which we hail as a favourable omen in the belles lettres of Germany, impresses a degree of gloom in the compositions of our countrymen.” One wonders whether this unabashed nationalism and condescension toward literary popularity can be unrelated to envy of the younger author’s higher sales.

After all, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had explained his own role in his collaboration with Coleridge as the description of “incidents and situations from common life,” though he sought “to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” In a clear division of labor, while his colleague sought to heighten the everyday, Coleridge took the opposite role of rendering believable “persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic.” [2] Coleridge’s own use of the fantastic, the miraculous, the sensational and the exotic, not to mention his enthusiasm for German literature might have made Coleridge a likely natural advocate for Lewis, yet his review of The Monk is decidedly ambivalent, and Coleridge strays toward hostility on the very point at which his ideas are least supportable. [3]

He suggests (with a rhetorical shudder of horror) that Lewis shows signs of being less than an orthodox Christian, based primarily on the novel’s passing ironic comments about the Bible’s tales of immorality. Coleridge is greatly concerned about this though, for some reason, he provides a reference to what strikes him as the dirtiest passage in scripture (Ezekiel XXIII). Probably the one line in the review that has attracted the greatest amount of attention is his claim that “the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.” Coleridge doubtless had in mind the not only the waggish comments on sexual themes in the Bible but also certain seduction scenes in the novel itself. Yet Monk’s jest about the Bible was flippant if daring and the author had, after all, consistently catered to British religious opinion in depicting Catholicism as superstitious and corrupt and foreign lands as realms of injustice and tyranny.

In the first place, Coleridge is of course out of step with contemporary standards which would find neither the religious opinions nor the erotic scenes (more often implied than enacted) objectionable. Further, many readers would consider Coleridge himself far from averse to the use of an appeal to the sensational. The more significant problem with this stricture, however, is that it belies the popular character of Lewis work, and the book was immensely popular. It went through edition after edition, both authorized and pirated, and inspired stage and film adaptations as well as an opera. Almost apologetically, Coleridge says that he has only come to write about the book because of “the unusual success which it has experienced.”

The reading audience, predominantly bourgeois and largely female, may have indeed been intrigued by the claims of Coleridge and the book’s other opponents. Lewis’ biographer drily notes that, the public had heard that The Monk was “horrible, blasphemous, and lewd, and they rushed to put their morality to the test.” [4] Indeed, criticism so abashed the author that he apologized to his family and his readers and expurgated later editions in a response to the opprobrium.

While high art often interrogates and challenges received ideas, popular literature typically reinforces them. To be truly popular a work may flirt with transgression in a titillating manner, but it must ultimately strengthen rather than overturn the reader’s preconceptions. While it is true that the redoubtable Marquis de Sade (whose Justine may have influenced Lewis and who may have been influenced in turn) [5] wanted to think Lewis’ book “revolutionary,” but in fact the author’s subsequent disavowal of such an aim was no more than candid.

Perhaps the most intensely erotic image in the entire book is the “daemon” conjured by Matilda: “It was a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled. He was perfectly naked: A bright Star sparkled upon his forehead . . .” [6] Yet in spite of this clearly homoerotic image in a book full of cross-dressing and androgyny, the issue of homosexuality in lived experience never arises. This pattern is paradigmatic for The Monk as a whole. A sexy youth is a moment’s marvel. A joke about religion is only a joke. In the end, once the reader has relished scenes of women subjected to ravishment and naked appetite, the vicious suffer for their sins, Ambrosio most dramatically.

The reader thinks about Lewis’ attitude in parliament and in private business toward slavery. While claiming an enlightened “modern” attitude and opposing slavery at home, the inheritor of sizable Indies plantations wished to maintain ownership of his own slaves. In the end, though more liberal than some, he took his position with the ruling class.

Carnival thrill houses and horror films likewise must provide carefully regulated safe fear for people’s amusement in precisely the same way that sentimental stories like “tear-jerker” movies evoke strong but shallow levels of emotion. Lewis’ extravagant evocation of the supernatural as spectacle has a different character sixty years after the statute against witchcraft was repealed, when most educated people no longer believed in ghosts or sorcerers or raising the devil. Lewis may achieve Guignol-style shocks (such as Agnes holding the body of her baby), but he never rises to the true tragedy of Marlowe’s Faustus. Ambrosio, in contrast, can excite only curiosity and perhaps, from the soft-hearted, pity. He is a singularly weak diabolist, constantly wavering and acting more out of impulse than decided will.

Ambrosio’s character strikes Coleridge as deeply implausible, and here he has a point. He finds the transition from a “man who had been described as possessing much general humanity, a keen and vigorous understanding, with habits of the most exalted piety” into “an uglier fiend than the gloomy imagination of Dante would have ventured to picture” altogether incredible. To Coleridge the monk’s character lacked a sufficient “semblance of truth . . . to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.” [7] It is surely a fact that Ambrosio is a two-dimensional slave to the narrative, though this is generally the case in popular genres (and in folk stories where character depth is nonexistent).

The enjoyment of naughty stories that conclude with the most conventional of morals extends from the account of hot times in Sodom in the medieval Pearl-poet’s Clannesse through Moll Flanders and Reefer Madness. Coleridge faults this technique, claiming that Lewis has gone too far. “The sufferings which he describes are so frightful and intolerable, that we break with abruptness from the delusion, and indignantly suspect the man of a species of brutality, who could find a pleasure in wantonly imagining them.” Such righteous indignation only flare the higher if the indignant reader is aware of his own participation in sado-masochistic pleasure.

Coleridge says that in a book like The Monk “the order of nature may be changed wherever the author's purposes demand it . . . For the same reasons a romance is incapable of exemplifying a moral truth.” He might more generally have said that a romanced cannot support a theme implying something about lived experience, as it need not coincide even with a single person’s impression of reality. With the inclusion of supernatural cause and effect, “all events are levelled into one common mass, and become almost equally probable, where the order of nature may be changed wherever the author's purposes demand it.” This allows a certain irresponsibility for which the compensating value must be neither more nor less that its “having given pleasure during its perusal,” what moderns might call a beach or an airplane book. With the same envious condescension a professor might use in ridiculing Stephen King, he comments on the cheapness of the Gothic: “the public will learn . . . with how little expense of thought or imagination this species of composition is manufactured.” “Figures that shock the imagination, and narratives that mangle the feelings, rarely discover genius, and always betray a low and vulgar taste.

Vulgar it may be in the literal sense, but, as Seldes said, outstanding popular art is far preferable to mediocre high art. Though Coleridge conceded that Lewis displayed “an imagination rich, powerful, and fervid,”(and that last adjective suggests pathological excess), he failed to understand the role of popular literature. People have always demanded such work, filled with sensation as contemporary popular movies are filled with cars crashing through windows and glimpses of naked breasts. Such pandering does indeed correspond to themes that reinforce rather than challenge the reader’s ideas, but this, too, is an important role of art. Popular art like Lewis’ The Monk transmit culture no less than oral folk-tales in preliterate societies. Though powerful art always contains ambivalences, mysteries, and contradictions, such cues suggesting a critical attitude toward what “all the world” thinks have only recently come to the fore in the narratives people have always invented to occupy their leisure. The Monk is indeed unrealistic and sensational; these are appropriate generic characteristics. It titillates readers into thinking it transgressive while in fact reinforcing their pre-existing opinions.



1. Coleridge, review of Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk, The Critical Review, Feb. 1797, pp.. 194-200. Oddly Coleridge in this review refers to the main character as Antonio, not Ambrosio. Subsequent references to this same review will not be separately noted.

2. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV.

3. There is little doubt that Wordsworth would have shared Coleridge’s opinion of The Monk. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads he frames his project in direct opposition to what he considers the coarsening of taste which he attributes to urbanization and which has resulted in a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” He would surely have considered Monk one of those writers have supplied the public’s desire through the “application of gross and violent stimulants.”

4. Peck, Louis (1961). A Life of Matthew G. Lewis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 28.

5. Horner, Avril. European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange 1760-1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 39 ff.

6. Chapter 7.

7. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Ch. XIV.