Monday, 10 February 2014

Foreshadowings: John Stagg, A Forgotten Gothic Poet

This week the Gothic Reading Group will boldly go where (to the best of our knowledge) no scholars have gone before as we tackle the forgotten Romantic-era poet, John Stagg. Ahead of the session Mark has been pondering where best to situate Stagg in our existing sense of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Gothic writing and doing some background research on the author's career. The results are quite interesting. . .


John Stagg: A Forgotten "Gothic" Poet

If our last session was focused on well known material of questionable Gothic pedigree then our next will turn that scenario on its head. In John Stagg's The Minstrel of the North we're faced with an avowedly "Gothic" text from the form's Romantic heyday that very few people have heard of. This may entail a shift in approach to our materials. We might still be interested in seeing how our existing sense of Romantic period Gothic aids our understanding of this text, but we should also ask what it might be able to tell us about the Gothic. What does it mean for a self-confessedly "unknown" writer to identify his first poetry collection as "Gothic" in 1810?  For Stagg, whose text proclaims itself a "miscellany" of "Cumbrian Legends," this seems to imply a correlation between the Gothic and the poetry of place in the literary marketplace of the early nineteenth century.

He's Gothic and he knows it.

Those of us who are familiar with the landscape of Romantic writing will know that an association of poets with the places in and about which they wrote was a frequent and often highly visible (indeed, marketable) feature of popular authorship at this point. We think perhaps of the 'Lake Poets', Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Robert Burns writing of his native Ayrshire and collecting folk songs from around Scotland or even of Charlotte Smith, whose Elegiac Sonnets (1784) drew on her connections with West Sussex. We're also already aware of the popularity of 'Gothic' miscellanies during the same period. The chief of these is Matthew Lewis's Tales of Wonder first published in 1801 and frequently reprinted and expanded. In fact, the more eagle-eyed of us may already have spotted that Stagg poems such as "The White Woman" acknowledge a debt to material by Lewis, in this case his "The Grim White Woman" - if Stagg's poetry excites an interest in Gothic verse, you'll probably find Tales of Wonder an equally interesting read.

Matthew Lewis's Tales of Wonder: one of several sources for Stagg?

In Stagg though we have a writer who seems to combine these two types of poetry so that a "Poetical Miscellany of Legendary, Gothic and Romantic, Tales" is also a set of specifically "Cumbrian Legends" given forth by Stagg as "The Minstrel of the North." This is interesting because it embeds the Gothic tale in a specifically British (and English) setting: something Lewis's work, which draws more generally upon European sources, does not set out to do. Stagg himself is honest in admitting that this innovation is a ploy to attract an existing readership with new material and his paratexts are well worth reading for their glimpse into the outlook of an unknown author surveying a contemporary literary marketplace that includes the Gothic and its readers. His prefaratory apology attempts to placate criticism by pointing to "the romance mania so prevalent nowadays" and "the avidity with which the works of Lewis, Wadsworth, Southey and Scott, are at present perused" (we can safely assume that "Wadsworth" is a printer's error for Wordsworth and not a reference to the poetic powers of the three-year-old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).  With the tastes of his readers thus established Stagg observes that "there are a great many historical and romantic legends existing in Cumberland; with a number of other Gothic stories prevalent in the North." In view of this the poet is "convinced that a versification of these stories, which in some manner were topographical . . . would not prove ungratifying to a great number of readers, especially the admirers of Gothic and romantic literature."

Title page of the 1816 second edition of Stagg's Minstrel

Stagg wears his influences on his sleeve then, though the contents of his volume aren't always in keeping with his prefaratory claims. "The Vampyre", for example, bears no obvious connection to a British (let alone Cumbrian setting) as a prefaratory "Argument" associates its story with Hungarian and German folklore. That said, Stagg's strange exploration of the Vampyre myth, with its slightly strained medical language (vampyres, it transpires, drain their victims "by suckosity") does seem to conclude that these spectres might go about in the forms of "horses, cows, sheep, asses, dogs, cats, &c, &c," thus making any Cumbrian farmyard a potential haven of the malignant undead. . . You win this one, Minstrel of the North.

Scaleby Castle in Cumbria, as illustrated by William Gilpin who, believe it or not, was born there.

I wouldn't entirely dismiss the British connection though, or see it as merely incidental to Stagg's collection. In my own research I'm very interested in the way a developing tradition of domestic tourism in the British Isles rubs up against the potential for Gothic narrative and affect when evaluating the Picturesque properties of ruins and other landscape features. By the time Stagg published The Minstrel, the vogue for this kind of travel-writing (and its reading) was well-established and the Cumbrian counties of Cumberland and Westmorland had attracted this kind of attention as far back as William Gilpin's very popular Observations [on] the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Wesmoreland first published in 1786. I think it's well worth asking if poetry such as Stagg's demonstrates (or even just posits) a taste for a 'Gothic Britain' emerging out of a range of print cultures (including fiction and travel-writing) in the Romantic period. This may or may not be the same as a 'British Gothic', depending on how we position popular tourism and balladry in relation to more earnest antiquarianism, historiography and political theory. We'll have to see what the group thinks!

 In the meantime though:

Who was John Stagg?

The answer, it seems, is that nobody really knows. His "The Vampyre" is occasionally anthologised, but doesn't receive any substantial gloss. The rest of his career appears more or less undiscovered by modern scholarship. Enter the University of Sheffield Gothic Reading Group. . .

I first came across Stagg many years ago whilst wandering Jack Voller's excellent (and sadly soon to be retired) website on The Literary Gothic. It says much for the quality of that site that it's still the only modern critical source on Stagg that I'm currently aware of (needless to say, I'd be thrilled to hear of any others). My own research skills have advanced considerably since that first undergraduate encounter with Stagg, however (as has google. . .) and I've managed to gather a few other resources on his life and career. It seems that Stagg wasn't as forgotten in the nineteenth century as he is now and that his posthumous reputation was indeed that of a regional poet. 

A view of Wigton town hall in Cumbria. Suspected Vampyres in foreground
An 1866 collection of The Songs and Ballads of Cumberland (edited by a Sidney Gilpin of Derwent College) contains a short selection of two songs and six poems by Stagg, the latter chosen for their use of Cumberland dialect, a feature of Stagg's poetry which is not prevalent in his "Gothic" Minstrel of the North. Sidney Gilpin also gives a brief biographical notice of Stagg, which he believes to be the first attempted. here we learn that Stagg was "born in Burgh-by-Sands, near Carlisle, in the year 1770" and that he was "educated for the church" before losing his sight in an unspecified childhood accident. Thereafter he was "known throughout Cumberland as 'blin' Stagg the fiddler.'" Stagg apparently did make his living as a fiddler and library keeper and also took part in an amateur dramatic company. His poetic career seems to have been prompted by the patronage of various learned and aristocratic friends, including the Duke of Norfolk, to whom The Minstrel of the North is dedicated. 

Stagg published his first volume of poetry in 1790, shortly after his marriage. This was a collection of Miscellaneous Poems. Here Stagg doesn't seem interested in positioning himself as a Cumbrian poet and instead offers pieces in a range of poetic sub-genres, including several classical translations and adaptations. The volume was published by subscription at Carlisle, rather than being issued in London and this appears to have been the pattern for subsequent collections. I've not had time to do any extensive bibliographical research on these, but Gilpin implies that they may have been subsequent editions of the Miscellaneous Poems, with added dialect poetry. These were published in 1804, 1805 and 1807, all by local presses at Carlisle, Workington and Wigton. At this point Stagg also seems to have relied on publication by subscription and to have drawn on local acquaintances (the list of subscribers to the 1790 Miscellaneous Poems is primarily drawn from Carlisle and surrounding towns and villages). With respect to Stagg's place in a broader poetic tradition it's worth noting that these editions include material in both "the Cumberland and Scottish dialects," a version of "Auld Lang Syne" and an "Epitaph on the late Robert Burns":

From the 1807 edition of Stagg's Miscellaneous Poems

This same edition also includes an epigraph from Milton's Paradise Lost: the famous opening of Book III, in which the poet speaks of his own blindness. Stagg is nothing if not conscious of his potential place within a broader tradition of popular and critically acclaimed poetry.

So where does The Minstrel of the North fit into this brief career sketch? Very interestingly, I think. There are a few things we can note about The Minstrel right away. It's issued at London, it mentions "gentlemen" subscribers, but does not list them and it doesn't appear to contain any dialect poetry (despite being Stagg's most explicitly "Cumbrian" poetry, yet). Oh, and it calls itself "Gothic."

Stagg's influences?: Matthew Gregory Lewis, John Milton and Robert Burns

Taken together, this information suggests that The Minstrel was Stagg's bid for real success: a volume published (and sold) in London that drew on aspects of the poet's 'brand' (as a Cumbrian poet) but also carefully modified that identity. A poetics of place is still important here, but this isn't conveyed through dialect verse. Instead the Cumbrian locality is to be evoked by its myths and legends. It is to be evoked, for the London literary marketplace, through the Gothic. In and of itself that's potentially quite fascinating for what it says about the tastes of that marketplace (or at least what Stagg thought of them) and for what this in turn reveals about the potential currency of the Gothic in 1810 and the shape it could take. Is Stagg's "Gothic" poetry of place part of the same tradition (or market trend) as Burns's work of the 1780s? Is Stagg astute in exchanging dialect (and comedy) for Gothic legend? Is the influence of domestic tourism and related non-fiction writing about place important here, with its attempt to make 'Picturesque' and 'Romantic' regions available to a metropolitan readership? And what does it mean for a poet, blind from childhood, to attempt to appease a taste grounded in landscape aesthetics? Or, if this is an attempt to cash-in on the success of Lewis, why does Stagg wait until 1810, with dialect poetry in the intervening period? Why does Stagg think vampyres can turn into sheep?

These (and other, quite possibly completely unrelated) questions are there for the tackling when we meet on Wednesday. For now I'll end (appropriately enough) by summarising the conclusion of Stagg's career. The Minstrel of the North went into a second edition, in 1816. This reprints the Dedication and Prefaratory Apology unchanged (Wordsworth is still Wadsworth) but offers a slightly different selection of poems. This edition was printed at Manchester, not London. After this Stagg published a final collection, in 1821 (two years before his death). This was his The Cumbrian Minstrel: Being a Poetical Miscellany of Legendary, Gothic, and Romantic Tales. It too was printed at Manchester and seems to draw upon all of Stagg's published poetry so far, including reprints of material from The Minstrel of the North as well as his earlier classical translations. The Cumbrian Minstrel features no preface, but does include a verse "Address to the Public" which speaks of the author's penury and suggests that his previous reception may have disappointed him. Now Stagg turns instead to write of local matters for a local audience:

And where's the clime with landscape better stor'd
Than what our native regions can afford:
The tow'ring mountain and the spreading lake.
The roaring cat'ract, or the bushy brake,
The waving forest and the sloping dale,
The friendly hamlet and the peaceful vale,
The mould'ring ruin and the dreary cell,
Are haunts where genius ever loves to dwell;
And say throughout what country can be shown,
A group more grand, more various than our own.
To sing of those alternate, and rehearse
Their various charms now occupies my verse:
If critics praise my labours or condemn;
I care not - their decisions I contemn; 
'Tis for myself I write, and not for them

Did Stagg mis-judge the London marketplace and his chance of success within it? Or does the comparative local success of his poetry indicate a regional market for Gothic, separate to that serviced by the major London publishers and libraries? How does John Stagg fit into a 'map' of the literary Gothic in the early nineteenth-century? Watch this space. . .

Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English, working on eighteenth-century Gothic and travel-writing. He's very grateful to google.books and tabbed browsing.


  1. Photo not ‘Wigton town hall’ but Highmoor Tower in Wigton.
    1866 Songs & Ballads of Cumberland edited by Sidney Gilpin of Derwent Cottage, not College. Gilpin was pen name of Carlisle publisher George Coward.
    Stagg is a contemporary of ‘Cumberland Bard’ Robert Anderson, whose earlier works were also in Standard English, before discovering g the strong local market for dialect poetry. Stagg, Anderson and Wordsworth were all born 1770.
    I have done a lot of research into Cumberland dialect poetry and song. Happy to correspond.
    Sue Allan

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