1799
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

English Eclogues: Preface.

Poems, by Robert Southey. The Second Volume.

Robert Southey


Robert Southey declares that, shunning imitation, he has invented a new kind of eclogue — based on a description of the German model he has heard described. In later editions, the friend is identified as William Taylor of Norwich (with whom he had exchanged a series of letters about the Eclogues), and the concluding paragraph is dropped.

In dismissing pastoral imitation, Southey repeats the sentiment Samuel Johnson, Joseph Warton, and a host of lesser writers on the subject. Nor are his own efforts as original as he implies; his "English Eclogues" follow in the tradition of "British Pastoral" founded by John Gay, as Southey makes clear. Such works had, in one way or another, always tried to be "true to nature." The "German" species of pastoral would alludes to the Idylls of Salomon Gesner, a Swiss poet whose works had been translated and imitated several times, and which Southey knew, as he writes to William Taylor of Norwich in 1798: "I know not enough of the German eclogues to say that this is in the same style, for, except one of Gesner's, in a Devon and Cornwall collection of poems, and I have forgotten everything of that, except that it was there" 24 July 1798; in Robberds, Memoir of William Taylor (1843) 1:214.

Southey's originality lies not in his subjects or in his hard-boiled approach, but in a prosody, which achieves "a colloquial plainness of language" that verges on prose. Southey certainly knew Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads by this point, so perhaps his affectation of originality stems from some anxiety of influence from that quarter. Wordsworth's 1798 preface announces that "The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure" — a better description of Southey's Eclogues would be difficult to find.

But as similar as they are in some respects, Southey's Eclogues are eclogues rather than lyrical ballads, a skilful addition to the tradition written with full cognizance not only of Gay and Philips, but of Theocritus, Spenser, and Virgil. Perhaps the most original thing about these poems is the fact that Southey participates in a tradition so many of his contemporaries were busy repudiating. The sheep, riddles, and Arcadian landscape are nowhere in evidence, but there are haunting allusions to some of the darker themes in traditional pastoral.

Analytical Review: "Mr. S. is not the first who has transplanted the German Idylls into English verse, for Dr. Drake, in his Literary Hours, (No. XIV.) has some ingenious Remarks on pastoral Poetry, wherein he reprobates the servile imitators of the Syracusan bard with proper severity; and has pursued the attempt to introduce a more familiar style, in his Eclogue of Edwin and Orlando" NS 1 (April 1799) 406.




The following Eclogues I believe, bear no resemblance to any poems in our language. This species of composition has become popular in Germany, and I was induced to attempt it by an account of the German Idylls given me in conversation. They cannot properly be stiled imitations, as I am ignorant of that language or specimens in this kind.

With bad Eclogues I am sufficiently acquainted, from Tityrus and Corydon down to our English Strephons and Thirsises. No kind of poetry can boast of more illustrious names or is more distinguished by the servile dulness of imitated nonsense. Pastoral writers "more silly than their sheep" have like their sheep gone on in the same track one after another. Gay stumbled into a new path. His eclogues were the only ones that interested me when I was a boy, and did not know that they were burlesque. The subject would furnish matter for a long essay, but this is not the place for it.

How far poems requiring almost a colloquial plainness of language may accord with the public taste I am doubtful. They have been subjected to able criticism and revised with care. I have endeavoured to make them true to nature.


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