The first of the six eclogues renders the traditional themes of country-house poem in an eclogue with a twist in its tail suggested, as their correspondence reveals, by Southey's new friend William Taylor of Norwich. Perhaps Robert Southey remembers Virgil's first eclogue, which is likewise concerned with displacement.
The germ of the poem is recorded in Southey's Commonplace Book: "A ruined mansion-house, — rather going to ruin. An old man breaking stones on the road (or some such hard labour) must be the other speaker, who remembered its old master. Or would it not be well to make this like the fine old house at Stowey, being modernised by a young heir — the yew trees cut down — the casement windows altered — the porch and its jessamine destroyed? and old hospitality, and old fashions, and old benevolence, all gone together?" "Subjects for Idylls," Common-Place Book (1849-51) 4:95.
Robert Southey to William Taylor of Norwich: "My others are better than this.... I know not enough of the German eclogues to say that this is in the same style, for, except what I learnt from you, I only remember one of Gessner's, in a Devon and Cornwall collection of poems, and I have forgotten everything of that, except that it is there" 24 July 1798; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich (1843) 1:214.
William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "Is there not too much similarity of opinion between the traveller and the old man? Both of them dislike the alterations, and both dislike them with a certain refinement of affection, which is in its place only in the traveller. Many of the speeches are now transferable to either party. The poem is a description complete indeed and fortunate, but broken into dialogue one does not know why. The two characters seem to me to require more contrast, which may be accomplished by giving to them a greater disparity of culture, or to the traveller a modern taste. He might in this case prove to be the new landlord, which would give catastrophe to the piece" 10 August 1798; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich (1843) 1:215.
Robert Southey to G. C. Bedford: "My Vision is not yet fit for the press. It will however soon be there and I shall add other pieces enough to make up a second volume. I have some good ballads ready and my English Eclogues will be among my best things" 26 August 1798; in New Letters, ed. Currey (1965) 1:176.
Robert Southey to William Taylor of Norwich: "I thank you for your remarks on the eclogue, and shall profit by them. I am partial to 'There was' — because it is a nursery-tale beginning; but in this case it will be better to preserve a dramatic form throughout. The traveller shall be made modern in his tastes; but whether it be well to have anything like discovery in these short pieces, I am doubtful" 5 September 1798; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich (1843) 1:221.
William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "Your eclogue is worthy an enthusiast of the Odyssey; but to all unpublished poetry I hold it a duty to be pitiless, and shall defer defending its beauties till it be irrevocably born.... Is there not too much similarity of opinion between the traveller and the old man? Both of them dislike the alterations, and both dislike them with a certain refinement of affection, which is in its place only in the traveller. Many of the speeches are transferable to either party. The poem is a description complete indeed and fortunate, but broken into dialogue one does not know why. The two characters seem to me to require more contrast, which may be accomplished by giving to them a greater disparity of culture, or to the traveller a modern taste. He might in this case prove to be the new landlord, which would give catastrophe to the piece. If I had Voss's 'Luise' here (it was reviewed by the Rev. Mr. Henley in the Critical), I would convince you by some translated extracts how very much in its spirit you compose. You talk of Gesner — he is hardly worth naming — he has little originality and no variety. With him 'tis 'et in Arcadia ego' for ever. I had rather escape sometimes into Salvator Rosa's wildernesses, than always lounge in trim shrubberies, peopled with cosset lambs and pinioned nightingales" 10 August 1798; in Robberds, Memoir of William Taylor (1843) 1:214-16.
Analytical Review: "The great difficulty of writing a dialogue between two countrymen would be the choice and preservation of appropriate language: it is obviously indispensable that the language of such a recorded dialogue should be equally remote from vulgarity and refinement. Vulgarity would disgust us by its coarseness, and refinement by its unsuitableness to the characters introduced. We rather question whether the first twenty lines of Mr. S's first eclogue have not too much colloquial familiarity" NS 1 (April 1799) 405.
William Haller: "The English Eclogues deal ... for the most part with the darker side of the life of the country people, with murders, ruined damsels, mothers desolated by the pressgang, witch superstition, the evil influence of wealth, and the other corruptions of human nature in society. All this is couched in a simplicity of language which apes the simplicity of the country-folk themselves.... He wrote nine such pieces in all, the last in 1803" The Early Life of Robert Southey (1917) 218-19.
Robert Southey reports he had written an additional English Eclogue, "The Alderman's Funeral," in a letter to Walter Scott, 6 July 1809; it was published in Scott's Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) and reprinted in The Polyanthos [Boston] 1 (October 1812) 46-49. Compare also his "Eclogue: The Last of the Family" in the Annual Anthology for 1799 (1799) 165-71.
Old friend! why you seem bent on parish duty,
Breaking the highway stones, — and 'tis a task
Somewhat too hard methinks for age like yours.
Why yes! for one with such a weight of years
Upon his back. I've lived here, man and boy,
In this same parish, near the age of man
For I am hard upon threescore and ten.
I can remember sixty years ago
The beautifying of this mansion here
When my late Lady's father, the old Squire
Came to the estate.
Why then you have outlasted
All his improvements, for you see they're making
Great alterations here.
Aye — great indeed!
And if my poor old Lady could rise up—
God rest her soul! 'twould grieve her to behold
The wicked work is here.
They've set about it
In right good earnest. All the front is gone,
Here's to be turf they tell me, and a road
Bound to the door. There were some yew trees too
Stood in the court.
Aye Master! fine old trees!
My grandfather could just remember back
When they were planted there. It was my task
To keep them trimm'd, and 'twas a pleasure to me!
All strait and smooth, and like a great green wall!
My poor old Lady many a time would come
And tell me where to shear, for she had played
In childhood under them, and 'twas her pride
To keep them in their beauty. Plague I say
On their new-fangled whimsies! we shall have
A modern shrubbery here stuck full of firs
And our pert poplar trees; — I could as soon
Have plough'd my father's grave as cut them down!
But 'twill be lighter and more chearful now,
A fine smooth turf, and with a gravel road
Round for the carriage, — now it suits my taste.
I like a shrubbery too, it looks so flesh,
And then there's some variety about it.
In spring the lilac and the gueldres rose,
And the laburnum with its golden flowers
Waving in the wind. And when the autumn comes
The bright red berries of the mountain ash,
With firs enough in winter to look green,
And show that something lives. Sure this is better
Than a great hedge of yew that makes it look
All the year round like winter, and for ever
Dropping its poisonous leaves from the under boughs
So dry and bare!
Ah! so the new Squire thinks
And pretty work he makes of it! what 'tis
To have a stranger come to an old house!
It seems you know him not?
No Sir, not I.
They tell me he's expected daily now,
But in my Lady's time he never came
But once, for they were very distant kin.
If he had played about here when a child
In that fore court, and eat the yew-berries,
And sat in the porch threading the jessamine flowers,
That fell so thick, he had not had the heart
To mar all thus.
Come — come! all is not wrong.
Those old dark windows—
They're demolish'd too—
As if he could not see thro' casement glass!
The very red-breasts that so regular
Came to my Lady for her morning crumbs,
Won't know the window now!
Nay they were high
And then so darken'd up with jessamine,
Harbouring the vermine; — that was a fine tree
However. Did it not grow in and line
All over it: it did one good
To pass within ten yards when 'twas in blossom.
There was a sweet-briar too that grew beside.
My Lady loved at evening to sit there
And knit; and her old dog lay at her feet
And slept in the sun; 'twas an old favourite dog
She did not love him less that he was old
And feeble, and he always had a place
By the fire-side, and when he died at last
She made me, dig a grave in the garden for him.
Ah! she was good to all! a woful day
'Twas for the poor when to her grave she went!
They lost a friend then?
You're a stranger here
Or would not ask that question. Were they sick?
She had rare cordial waters, and for herbs
She could have taught the Doctors. Then at winter
When weekly she distributed the bread
In the poor old porch, to see her and to bear
The blessings on her! and I warrant them
They were a blessing to her when her wealth
Had been no comfort else. At Christmas, Sir!
It would have warm'd your heart if you had seen
Her Christmas kitchen,—how the blazing fire
Made her fine pewter shine, and holly boughs
So chearful red, — and as for misseltoe,
The finest bough that grew in the country round
Was mark'd for Madam. Then her old ale went
So bountiful about! A Christmas cask,
And 'twas a noble one! God help me Sir!
But I shall never see such days again.
Things may be better yet than you suppose
And you should hope the best.
It don't look well
These alterations Sir! I'm an old man
And love the good old fashions; we don't find
Old bounty in new houses. They've destroyed
All that my Lady loved; her favourite walk
Grubb'd up, and they do say that the great row
Of elms behind the house, that meet a-top
They must fall too. Well! well! I did not think
To live to see all this, and 'tis perhaps
A comfort I shan't live to see it long.
But sure all changes are not needs for the worse
May-hap they mayn't Sir; — for all that
I like what I've been us'd to. I remember
All this from a child up, and now to lose it,
'Tis losing an old friend. There's nothing left
As 'twas; — I go abroad and only meet
With men whose fathers I remember boys;
The brook that used to run before my door
That's gone to the great pond; the trees I learnt
To climb are down; and I see nothing now
That tells me of old times, except the stones
In the church-yard. You are young Sir and I hope
Have many years in store, — but pray to God
You mayn't be left the last of all your friends.
Well! well! you've one friend more than you're aware of.
If the Squire's taste don't suit with your's, I warrant
That's all you'll quarrel with: walk in and taste
His beer, old friend! and see if your old Lady
E'er broached a better cask. You did not know me,
But we're acquainted now. 'Twould not be easy
To make you like the outside; but within—
That is not changed my friend! you'll always find
The same old bounty and old welcome there.