1799
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Oak of our Fathers.

Morning Post and Gazetteer (2 April 1799).

Robert Southey


A contribution, in couplet stanzas, to the sequence of poems developing the themes of Spenser's fable in Februarie. The Oak in this redaction represents the British Constitution, attacked by the ivy of corruption and the foresters undermining its roots. The poem is not signed; in Southey's Annual Anthology (1799) it is signed "R. S."

John Ferriar: "The author of this piece, whom we suppose to be Mr. Southey, has here spoken in a parable, against the intemperate zeal of some pretended friends to our Constitution; whom he likeneth to the ivy, which looseneth the roots of the tree to which it adhereth" Monthly Review NS 31 (April 1800) 356.

Joseph Dennie: "When Southey, in a mood of political discontent wrote the following ingenious lines, there was no room for querulousness. The British Constitution to which he alludes was neither rotten nor decayed. It was more vigorous than ever. Although therefore the application to England cannot be made, yet he who in America adverts to what we once were, to what we might be, and to what we are, will soon see that the oak of our national strength and dignity is rotten to the very core" Port Folio [Philadelphia] NS 3 (28 February 1807) 138.

The Enquirer [Richmond, VA]: "Southey represents the British Constitution under the following Allegory of the British Oak, and the patriotic Englishman must lament the melancholy fidelity of the picture. Sooner or later the Ivy must eat up all its vigour, unless the axe of France, should abruptly cleave it to its roots" (17 March 1807).

William Hazlitt: "Mr. Southey's talent in poetry lies chiefly in fancy and the invention of his subject. Some of his oriental descriptions, characters, and fables, are wonderfully striking and impressive, but there is an air of extravagance in them, and his versification is abrupt, affected, and repulsive. In his early poetry there is a vein of patriotic fervour, and mild and beautiful moral reflection" Select British Poets (1824) in Works, ed. Howe (1932) 9:243.



Alas! for the Oak of our Fathers, that stood
In its beauty, the glory and pride of the wood!

It grew and it flourish'd for many an age,
And many a tempest wreak'd on it its rage;
But when its strong branches were bent with the blast,
It struck its roots deeper and flourish'd more fast.

Its head tower'd high, and its branches spread round,
For its roots were struck deep, and its heart it was sound;
The bees o'er its honey-dew'd foliage play'd,
And the beasts of the forest fed under its shade.

The Oak of our fathers to freedom was dear,
Its leaves were her crown, and its wood was her spear.
Alas for the Oak of our fathers that stood,
In its beauty, the glory and pride of the wood.

There crept up an Ivy and clung round its trunk,
It struck in its mouths, and its juices it drunk;
The branches grew sickly, depriv'd of their food,
And the Oak was no longer the pride of the wood.

The Foresters saw and they gather'd around,
Its roots still were fast, and its heart still was sound;
The lopt off the boughs that so beautiful spread,
But the Ivy they spared on its vitals that fed.

No longer the bees o'er its honey-dews play'd,
Nor the beasts of the forest fed under its shade;
Lopt and mangled the trunk in its ruin is seen,
A monument now what its beauty has been.

The Oak has receiv'd its incurable wound
They have loosen'd the roots, though the heart may be sound,
What the trav'llers at distance green flourishing see,
Are the leaves of the Ivy that ruin'd the tree.

Alas! for the Oak of our fathers that stood,
In its beauty, the glory and pride of the wood.

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