1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

John Taylor Coleridge, "Tale of Paraguay" Quarterly Review 32 (October 1825) 457-67.



We can hardly expect that our readers should remember the opinion which we expressed ten years since of Mr. Southey's "Don Roderick;" but we confess we look back upon it with some pleasure; for, flattering as it was, it did not go beyond the concurring suffrages of the best poets, as well as the ablest critics of that day; and the public voice, not hastily nor capriciously uttered, has with remarkable steadiness ever since continued to assent to our judgment. We cannot wonder at this; for, setting aside the skill with which many of the details are managed, the originality, and sustained consistence of the principal characters, the stately melody of the versification, and the perfect appropriateness of the diction to the solemn character of the story; the story itself appeals to such deep feelings of the heart, and calls them out by the exhibition of such noble characters and touching incidents, that it seems impossible for unsophisticated hearts of ordinary tenderness not to be deeply affected by it; and if the true poet wrote for fame alone, the author of Don Roderick might have well declined all further competition, and rested satisfied with the rank which that poem indisputably secured to him. But the truth is, that poetry to the real genius is the outpouring of the heart, it is the natural air and exercise in which the faculties delight and have their healthful being; the poet sings in the first instance not to please others, but to relieve and indulge himself — his heart and mind are full, and the feelings within must have vent — no success, no applause, not even that deep assurance of immortality, which gives present glory its highest zest, and takes the sting out of present disappointment, is so full of delight to him as that moment of "the fine frenzy," when the glorious ideas that have been fermenting in the brain, begin to assume distinct shapes and glowing apparel; to fall into harmonious order; and then finally to float as it were into this lower world, on the wings of language, scattering, in their descent, bright pictures to the eye, and pouring sweet music upon the ear.

Mr. Southey, however, seems to have been aware that the public is jealous in its fondness for its favourites; and on the present occasion he has accordingly chosen a story so soon told, and so simple in all its incidents and characters, that it is impossible to draw the two poems into a comparison one with the other. So far from possessing the complication and deep romance of Don Roderick, when we lay before our readers the facts, which form the "Tale of Paraguay," the wonder will be, how they have been made capable of exciting interest at all. Yet it will be seen that he has not chosen his story amiss; it is of a kind which often places him on strong ground: and if he has failed of complete success, we attribute it to causes which we will hereafter notice; and not to the scantiness or rudeness of his materials.

The scene is laid in a land with which we should have said that Mr. Southey was particularly well acquainted, if he had not shown himself equally familiar with the scenery, the people, the customs, and superstitions of almost every region of the globe. A feeble Guarani tribe on the Empalado has been attacked by the small-pox, and a single pair, Quiara and Monnema, are the sole survivors of its ravages. At first their own sickness, and the dreadful visitation which they have witnessed, produce the natural effect, a heartless languor and reckless indifference to all things. But

That palsying stupor past away ere long,
And as the spring of health resumed its power,
They felt that life was dear, and hope was strong.
What marvel! 'Twas with them the morning hour,
When bliss appears to be the natural dower
Of all the creatures of this joyous earth;
And sorrow fleeting like a vernal shower
Scarce interrupts the current of our mirth;
Such is the happy heart we bring with us at birth. — p. 27.

We quote this pleasing stanza, because it is in such stanzas as these, sometimes exhibiting the cheerful and warm-hearted creed of the author, sometimes minutely tracing the birthspring and developement of the tenderer affections, and sometimes realizing before us in vivid pictures the gentle happiness diffused by the charities of domestic life, that the main charm of this, and almost all Mr. Southey's later poems, consists. No one seems to feel these things more deeply than himself; no one has exhibited them with less glare and pretence, nor with more warm and individual truth; and, lie has adopted, we think most happily for his purpose, a diction much softened down and moderately antiquated; with stanzaic metres of different kinds, but all of that smooth and equable, yet varied flow, which suit particularly well both the diction and the class of ideas conveyed.

Quiara and Monnema become man and wife, and in due time are blessed with a boy, whom they call Yeruti. The change which this birth produces in their feelings, the consolation to think that the death of one will now not leave the other alone in the world, their daily increasing happiness as the child improves in strength and beauty, the delight with which they watch his progress, and the hopes which begin to arise that they may in time become the founders of another tribe, are all described with the same skill and power,

Oh bliss for them when in that infant face
They now the unfolding faculties descry,
And fondly gazing, trace — or think they trace—
The first faint speculation in that eye,
Which hitherto hath roll'd in vacancy!
Oh! bliss in that soft countenance to seek
Some mark of recognition, and espy
The quiet smile which in the innocent cheek
Of kindness and of kind its consciousness doth speak! — p. 39

Five happy years pass away, and Monnema is about to become a second time a mother, when Quiara, pursuing his usual occupation of hunting for their sustenance, is destroyed by a jaguar. Monnema survives the heavy blow; and her child is born, a girl. So much of the interest of the poem turns upon this beautiful creation of the poet, that we cannot do better than transcribe his own account of her, which will put the reader more fully in possession of what she is intended to be, than a much longer and more laboured description of our own.

—always did the Eye
Of Mercy look upon that lonely bower.
Days past, and weeks — and months and years went by,
And never evil thing the while had power
To enter there. The boy in sun and shower
Rejoicing in his strength to youthhed grew;
And Mooma, that beloved girl, a dower
Of gentleness from bounteous nature drew,
With all that should the heart of womankind imbue.

The tears which o'er her infancy were shed
Profuse, resented not of grief alone:
Maternal love their bitterness allay'd,
And with a strength and virtue all its own
Sustain'd the breaking heart. A look, a tone,
A gesture of that innocent babe, in eyes
With saddest recollections overflown,
Would sometimes make a tender smile arise,
Like sunshine breaking thro' a shower in vernal skies.

No looks but those of tenderness were found
To turn upon that helpless infant dear;
And as her sense unfolded, never sound
Of wrath or discord brake upon her ear.
Her soul its native purity sincere
Possess'd, by no example here defiled;
From envious passions free, exempt from fear,
Unknowing of all ill, amid the wild
Beloving and beloved she grew, a happy child.

Yea where that solitary bower was placed,
Tho' all unlike to Paradise the scene,
(A wide circumference of woodlands waste:)
Something of what in Eden might have been
Was shadowed there imperfectly, I ween,
In this fair creature: safe from all offence,
Expanding like a shelter'd plant serene,
Evils that fret and stain being far from thence,
Her heart in peace and joy retain'd its innocence. — p. 49

What Monnema could teach her children, she did, in their evening conversations; she described to them the scenes of her youth, the habits of her tribe, their feasts and sports, and cruel wars. She told them of their father, and that led to questions whither he was gone, and whether he ever would return. Of course her accounts of the future state were wild and unsatisfactory; at length she happened to recall a tradition she had heard in childhood—

How there appear'd amid the woodlands men
Whom the Great Spirit sent there to convey
His gracious will: but little heed she then
Had given, and like a dream it now recurr'd again.

But these young questioners from time to time
Call'd up the long-forgotten theme anew.
Strange men they were, from some remotest clime
She said, of different speech, uncouth to view,
Having hair upon their face, and white in hue:
Across the world of waters wide they came
Devotedly the Father's work to do,
And seek the red men out, and in his name
His merciful laws, and love, and promises proclaim. — p. 69.

The Jesuits presented a religion not only intelligible to the apprehension, but delightful to the imagination, of savages such as these; and Monnema could recollect and paint to her children a beautiful Virgin, who sate upon the crescent moon, and had the sparkling stars for her coronet; who fed at her breast a divine babe, the future judge of all the world; who sometimes came down from Heaven to bless her faithful servants, and who would protect them from all unhappinesses now and hereafter. Tales such as these excited new feelings in the hearts of Yeruti and Mooma, and they both became possessed with a longing desire to see one of these good men, to follow him from the woods, and to become the happy servants of the Virgin.

The wish was soon accomplished; some Spaniards, employed in procuring the herb of Paraguay, had crossed the river Empalado, and happened to light on the trace of Yeruti's feet. In alarm at the supposed vicinity of a savage tribe they dispatched a messenger to the nearest Jesuit mission for aid. The Spaniards by their cruelties to the native tribes had provoked an hostility, from which at the period in question they suffered most severely; even their towns were not secure from formal attacks of united bodies of savages; and the settlers, as they followed their occupations in the country in small parties, were constantly destroyed. The exertions of the Jesuits were that alone to which they looked for protection, and those exertions, at whatever hazard to themselves, these zealous men never refused. Whoever has read the History of the Brazils will be prepared to follow Mr. Southey in the deep interest with which he here commemorates the exertions and laments the downfall of the order in South America. The system of the Brethren was imperfect, and their work has passed away, but never let the positive good which they effected, nor the zeal which animated their labours, be forgotten.

In obedience to the present request, Dobrizhoffer, with a small band of Indian converts, had set out from the mission of St. Joachim in search of the supposed tribe in the woods. For some time the search was in vain; at length the party were startled by a female voice singing, a wild melody, blending the notes of all the wood birds into one rich strain, but unaccompanied by any words.

A little way alone into the wood
The Father gently moved toward the sound,
Treading with quiet feet upon the grassy ground.

Anon advancing thus the trees between,
He saw beside her bower the songstress wild,
Not distant far, himself the while unseen.
Mooma it was, that happy maiden mild,
Who in the sunshine, like a careless child
Of nature, in her joy was caroling.
A heavier heart than his it had beguiled
So to have heard so fair a creature sing
The strains which she had learnt from all sweet birds of spring.

For these had been her teachers, these alone;
And she in many an emulous essay,
At length into a descant of her own
Had blended all their notes, a wild display
Of sounds in rich irregular array;
And now as blithe as bird in vernal bower,
Pour'd in full flow the unexpressive lay,
Rejoicing in her consciousness of power,
But in the inborn sense of harmony yet more.

In joy had she begun the ambitious song,
With rapid interchange of sink and swell;
And sometimes high the note was raised, and long
Produced, with shake and effort sensible,
As if the voice exulted there to dwell;
But when she could no more that pitch sustain,
So thrillingly attuned the cadence fell,
That with the music of it's dying strain
She moved herself to tears of pleasurable pain. — p. 97.

———*———*———*———*———*———

When now the Father issued from the wood
Into that little glade in open sight,
Like one, entranced, beholding him, she stood;
Yet had she more of wonder than affright,
Yet less of wonder than of dread delight,
When thus the actual vision came in view;
For instantly the maiden read aright
Wherefore he came; his garb and beard she knew;
All that her mother heard had then indeed been true.

Nor was the Father filled with less surprize;
He too strange fancies well might entertain,
When this so fair a creature met his eyes.
He might have thought her not of mortal strain;
Rather, as bards of yore were wont to feign,
A nymph divine of Mondai's secret stream;
Or haply of Diana's woodland train:
For in her beauty Mooma such might seem,
Being less a child of earth than like a poet's dream.

No art of barbarous ornament had scarr'd
And stain'd her virgin limbs, or 'filed her face;
Nor ever yet had evil passion marr'd
In her sweet countenance the natural grace
Of innocence and youth; nor was there trace
Of sorrow, or of hardening want and care.
Strange was it in this wild and savage place,
Which seem'd to be for beasts a fitting lair,
Thus to behold a maid so gentle and so fair.

Across her shoulders was a hammock flung,
By night it was the maiden's bed, by day
Her only garment. Round her as it hung,.
In short unequal folds of loose array,
The open meshes, when she moves, display
Her form. She stood with fix'd and wondering eyes,
And trembling like a leaf upon the spray,
Even for excess of joy. — p. 98.

Our readers are prepared to be told, that the good Father found no great difficulty in persuading this little family to leave their woodland hut, and accompany him in his return to St. Joachim's. This brings us rapidly to the concluding and most painful part of the story. The change was always dangerous from shady wood, and dark morass to the open air and glaring sun of the plains; and scarcely less so from the wild habits and food of savage life to regular diets the quiet subordination, and almost collegiate monotony of the Jesuit missions. Beside this, Mr. Southey has drawn with great force, and yet not given more than due weight to the mental agitation produced by the flood of new ideas, new sights, and new sounds, which, continually agitating the new-comers, disturbed their sleep with frightful dreams, broke their rest, took away their appetites, and finally wasted away their feeble frames.

It is a melancholy tale to follow out. Monnema first sunk.

They laid her in the Garden of the Dead.
Such as a Christian burial-place should be
Was that fair spot, where every grave was spread
With flowers, and not a weed to spring was free;
But the pure blossoms of the orange tree
Dropt like a shower of fragrance, on the bier;
And palms, the type of immortality,
Planted in stately colonnades, appear,
That all was verdant there throughout the unvarying year. — p. 120.

Mooma and Yeruti had followed their mother to the grave; — the service of the dead, the promises it contained, and the unconditional manner of the missionary's teaching, had produced its full effect on their undoubting childlike minds; the happiness of heaven, and the immediate passage to it, if they died in the church, had been so impressed on their minds, that it swallowed up all other ideas — every thing else had lost its importance, almost its reality, in their eyes — and they were both in that state of body and mind most fit to be acted upon by the bodily disease which attacked them.

Mooma's frail frame was the next to yield. Her decline and death are exquisitely told, and copious as our extracts have already been, our readers would scarcely pardon us for omitting what follows:

Thenceforth she droop'd and withered like a flower,
Which when it flourished in its native shade
Some child to his own garden hath convey'd.
And planted in the sun, to pine away.
Thus was the gentle Mooma seen to fade,
Not under sharp disease, but day by day
Losing the powers of life in visible decay.

The sunny hue that tinged her cheek was gone,
A deathy paleness settled in its stead;
The light of joy which in her eyes had shone,
Now like a lamp that is no longer fed
Grew dim: but when she raised her heavy head
Some proffered help of kindness to partake,
Those feeble eyes a languid lustre shed,
And her sad smile of thankfulness would wake
Grief, even in callous hearts for that sweet sufferer's sake. — p. 123.

Vows were made and prayers offered for her recovery by all the inhabitants of the mission; for herself she prayed not to be restored to life; her heart was in Heaven, longing to meet her mother in Paradise:

Sometimes she spake, with short and hurried breath,
As if some happy sight she seemed to see;
While, in the fulness of a perfect faith,
Even with a lover's hope, she lay and longed for death. — p. 126.

Feebly, however, as long as she could, she used to sing her evening hymn, when the vesper bell sounded.

At such an hour when Dobrizhoffer stood
Beside her bed, oh how unlike, he thought
This voice to that which ringing thro' the wood
Had led him to the secret bower he sought!
And was it then for this that he had brought
That harmless household from their native shade?
Death had already been the mother's lot;
And this fair Mooma, was she form'd to fade
So soon; so soon must she in earth's cold lap be laid?

———*———*———*———*———*———

Who could dwell
Unmoved upon the fate of one so young,
So blithesome late? What marvel if tears fell,
From that good man as over her he hung,
And that the prayers he said came faltering from his tongue!

She saw him weep, and she could understand
The cause thus tremulously that made him speak.
By his emotion moved she took his hand;
A gleam of pleasure o'er her pallid cheek
Past, while she look'd at him with meaning meek,
And for a little while, as loth to part,
Detaining him, her fingers lank and weak,
Play'd with their hold; then letting him depart
She gave him a slow smile that touch'd him to the heart.

Mourn not for her! for what hath life to give
That should detain her ready spirit here?
Thinkest thou that it were worth a wish to live,
Could wishes hold her from her proper sphere?
That simple heart, that innocence sincere
The world would stain. Fitter she ne'er could be
For the great change; and now that change is near,
Oh who would keep her soul from being free?
Maiden beloved of Heaven, to die is best for thee. — p. 127.

Yeruti alone remained. During the illness, and for some time after the death of his sister, he had been himself so severely ill, that her state had never been allowed to reach his ears. He had been spared the pain of seeing her fade, who had been "the playmate of his youth," his darling thought by day, his dream by night. But when he recovered, he received the intelligence with seeming indifference; to him, indeed, the dead were not lost; he reckoned soon to follow them; he longed to be with them; the idea of them so haunted him, that even in open day, if he closed his eyes, they seemed to visit and converse with him: and at night, assuming a more distinct shape, and a more definite purpose, he said that they visited him; that they bade him tell the Father not to defer his baptism, or delay his soul longer upon the earth.

This is a strange but not unnatural state of mind; Yeruti performed all the tasks imposed, attended all the services, and was quietly cheerful; time only seemed heavy to him, and the close of every day to please him as bringing him nearer to his release. Nightly the visitation came as he reported it to Dobrizhoffer, and earnestly begged for baptism. Unwillingly, and doubtingly, the old man performed the office; but to Yeruti it seemed to give perfect happiness; he lay down on his bed at the accustomed hour; and exclaiming, ye are come for me, yes I am ready now, instantly died.

What we think of this tale, must appear from the number of the extracts which we have made; and the space which we have allowed ourselves in our notice of it. But the extracts will speak for themselves; and we will only assure our readers, that through the whole poem they will find the same clearness of narration, the same idiomatic purity of style, the same easy flow of versification; and, where the subject admitted of it, the same pathetic tenderness. It would be improper, however, to close our commendation without noticing the opening stanzas in which the volume is dedicated by the poet to his daughter. We would gladly have transferred them entire to our pages, if our limits had permitted us; but we cannot bring ourselves to injure their effect by partial citation. They appear to us to be in their kind among the most exquisite pieces of English poetry; the language and the rhythm are so happily adapted to the ideas, that there is scarcely a line or a word which we could wish to see altered; and the ideas have such a solemn tenderness, and stir up in us such feelings of affection for the living, and of pensive regret for the dead, that we have found it quite impossible to read them without being deeply moved.

In our opening remarks, however, we have intimated our opinion that Mr. Southey has failed of complete success; in spite of many beauties, the poem has the fault of being occasionally languid. For this we can assign two reasons; the author; in one sense, is perhaps the most learned man in England, that is, he has read, and mastered, the greatest number of books as well of merit as curiosity; and though this undoubtedly adds a great value to all he writes, and not less to his poetry than to his other productions, (giving to his manners and scenery a perfect reality, as well as furnishing him very frequently with the groundwork of striking adventures,) yet it sometimes exercises a prejudicial influence over both. We do not suppose him actuated by the unworthy vanity of displaying his knowledge, but he is certainly sometimes too desirous of communicating it, and too apt to consider that as valuable which is only curious, at least in the place in which it is introduced. In this way he has overlaid this poem with accounts of Guarani habits, customs, and superstitions, of the Spanish ravages, of the Jesuit missions; none of which were necessary in such detail to the understanding of the story, and only serve to impede its progress, and weaken its interest.

A similar fault is produced much in the same way. Mr. Southey is a great moralist; he cannot but feel conscious of having been one of the most influential moral writers of the day: and we have no doubt his mind has acquired a habit of making every incident the groundwork of some formed train of reflection. We think that he has suffered this to appear too largely in the present poem. In this case, as in the last, the question is one of degree only: it is not every observation which arises naturally from the subject, that is to be drawn out at length in narrative poetry; something should be left to be suggested to the reader by his own mind; and above all, a poet should never forget that instruction, though it may often be the real, should never be the ostensible object of a poem.

To these faults we must add, that we have been offended with one or two instances of what we would call, if the term be allowed us, nude domesticity; and that here and there are marks of a carelessness of composition, in which no man can safely indulge. The boldness of a successful poet will naturally increase, but his carefulness can never wisely be diminished. We have now balanced the defects and beauties of the poem, and will close our remarks with the explicit avowal of a sincere wish that it may be generally read and warmly admired. For it is of import to the public, that such poems as this should have wide diffusion, and exert powerful influence; like all Mr. Southey's, the "Tale of Paraguay" has an object beyond the passing interest of the story. It is his evident and uniform aim to withdraw our admiration from that which is merely brilliant and glaring, from the pleasures of sense, and still more from morbid misanthropy and discontent, (food for the mind which poisons while it stimulates,) to what is true, and pure, gentle, cheerful and kind. He lays before us a happy faith, he makes us see beauty and a principle of improvement in all around us, and discloses to us sources of blessing and comfort in ourselves; the gentler virtues which all may practise, the domestic charities, within the pale of which all may enter, are displayed by him in the most attractive forms; and the tendency of all that he writes is to produce dispositions and qualities which would most surely realize time happy pictures he draws; to make our men bold, honest and affectionate, and our women meek, tender and true.