1799
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

English Eclogues II. The Grandmother's Tale.

Poems, by Robert Southey. The Second Volume.

Robert Southey


Robert Southey spins a horrific yarn about a female soldier and a smuggler who meet with bad ends. The subject and treatment recalls the ballad themes that Wordsworth handles so very differently in Lyrical Ballads (1798).

John Aikin?: "Mr. S. has given us a few specimens of English eclogues, after the manner of the German Idylls, where the characters introduced are not the shepherds and shepherdesses, with their crooks, and their pipes, and their listening lambkins, but such characters as one may meet with, in his country rambles, almost every day. This strikes us as being a considerable improvement in bucolic poetry; and we hope it will be properly attended to" in "Retrospect of Domestic Literature" Monthly Magazine 7 (Supplement, 1799) 535.

John Ferriar: "Here again we meet with prose mistaken for verse. Witness the opening of the second [English Eclogue], which we shall extract without altering a single word; only avoiding the poetical form of printing.... Is it possible that the good old woman could mistake this gossiping for poetry? Of similar stuff are the rest of the eclogues composed. Our criticisms, divided into lines of equal length, would be nearly as poetical as these compositions" Monthly Review NS 31 (March 1800) 267.

Francis Jeffrey: "Mr. Crabbe exhibits the common people of England pretty much as they are, and as they must appear to every one who will take the trouble of examining into their condition; at the same time that he renders his sketches in a very high degree interesting and beautiful.... Mr. Wordsworth and his associates show us something that mere observation never yet suggested to any one. They introduce us to beings whose existence at previously suspected by the acutest observers of nature, and excite an interest for them, more by an eloquent and refined analysis of their own capricious feelings, than by any obvious or very intelligible ground of sympathy in their situation. The common sympathies of our nature, and our general knowledge of human character, do not enable us either to understand or to enter into the feelings of their characters. They are unique specimens and varieties of their kind, and must be studied under a separate classification. They have an idiosyncrasy, upon which all common occurrences operate in a peculiar manner; and those who are best acquainted with human nature, and with other poetry, are at a loss to comprehend the new system of feeling and of writing which is here introduced to their notice" Review of Crabbe, Poems; Edinburgh Review 12 (April 1808) 133-34.

Blackwood's Magazine: "BULLER. Ay, ay, Mr. North — there is Satan reproving sin, as you presbyters are wont to say. Believe me, you have never yet done Southey justice in your work. He is a splendid genius. His mind has a high tone. Southey, sir, is one of the giants. TICKLER. Why, the Whigs, and Radicals, and Reformers, abuse Mr. Southey, I observe, because, when an enthusiastic youth, soon after the French Revolution, he spoke and wrote a quantity of clever nonsense; and twenty years afterwards, when a wise man, he spoke and wrote a far greater quantity of saving knowledge. BULLER. Just so: you could not state the fact better, were you to talk an hour" (April 1822) in Noctes Ambrosianae (1857) 1:166.

Edmund Gosse: "From Westbury, in this same year of 1798, he sent forth a naval poem called 'The Victory,' which is a chain of stiffly expressed but pathetic reflections on the horrors of being carried off from home and wife and children by 'lawful violence.' This abuse much affected Southey, and it tinges all the studies of naval warfare in his English Eclogues of 1799. He takes a grim joy in the story of the woman who tied her nightcap round her husband's head, and let herself be whisked away by the press-gang. In his strong division of feeling with regard to the Republic, Southey was not prepared to express himself with martial lyricism, and it was not until the Peninsular campaign was in full progress that he was interested in the war. It was not until Waterloo that he was deeply moved by it" "Napoleonic Wars in English Poetry" in Inter Arma (1916) 118.

The Charles Lamb correspondence discusses other eclogues by Robert Southey; see the letters of November 1798 in Letters, ed. E. V. Lucas (1935) 1:131-36.



JANE.
Harry! I'm tired of playing. We'll draw round
The fire, and Grandmamma perhaps will tell us
One of her stories.

HARRY.
Aye — dear Grandmamma!
A pretty story! something dismal now;
A bloody murder.

JANE.
Or about a ghost.

GRANDMOTHER.
Nay, nay, I should but frighten you. You know
The other night when I was telling you
About the light in the church-yard, how you trembled
Because the screech-owl hooted at the window,
And would not go to bed.

JANE.
Why Grandmamma
You said yourself you did not like to bear him.
Pray now! we wo'nt be frightened.

GRANDMOTHER.
Well, well, children!
But you've heard all my stories. Let me see,—
Did I never tell you how the smuggler murdered
The woman down at Pill?

HARRY.
No — never! never!

GRANDMOTHER.
Not how he cut her head off in the stable?

HARRY.
Oh — now! do tell us that!

GRANDMOTHER.
You must have heard
Your mother, children! often tell of her.
She used to weed in the garden here, and worm
Your uncle's dogs, and serve the house with coal;
And glad enough she was in winter time
To drive her asses here! it was cold work
To follow the slow beasts thro' sleet and snow.
And here she found a comfortable meal
And a brave fire to thaw her, for poor Moll
Was always welcome.

HARRY.
Oh — 'twas blear-eyed Moll
The collier woman, — a great ugly woman,
I've heard of her.

GRANDMOTHER.
Ugly enough poor soul!
At ten yards distance you could hardly tell
If it were man or woman, for her voice
Was rough as our old mastiff's, and she wore
A man's old coat and hat, — and then her face!
There was a merry story told of her,
How when the press-gang came to take her husband
As they were both in bed, she heard them coming,
Drest John up in her night-cap, and herself
Put on his clothes and went before the Captain.

JANE.
And so they prest a woman!

GRANDMOTHER.
'Twas a trick
She dearly loved to tell, and all the country
Soon knew the jest, for she was used to travel
For miles around. All weathers and all hours
She crossed the hill, as hardy as her beasts,
Bearing the wind and rain and winter frosts,
And if she did not reach her home at night
She laid down in the stable with her asses
And slept as sound as they did.

HARRY.
With her asses!

GRANDMOTHER.
Yes, and she loved her beasts. For tho' poor wretch
She was a terrible reprobate and swore
Like any trooper, she was always good
To the dumb creatures, never loaded them
Beyond their strength, and rather I believe
Would stint herself than let the poor beasts want,
Because, she said, they could not ask for food.
I never saw her stick fall heavier on them
Than just with its own weight. She little thought
This tender-heartedness, would be her death!
There was a fellow who had oftentimes,
As if he took delight in cruelty,
Ill-used her asses. He was one who lived
By smuggling, and, for she had often met him
Crossing the down at night, she threatened him,
If he tormented them again, to inform
Of his unlawful ways. Well — so it was—
'Twas what they both were born to, he provoked her,
She laid an information, and one morn
They found her in the stable, her throat cut
From ear to ear, 'till the head only hung
Just by a bit of skin.

JANE.
Oh dear! oh dear!

HARRY.
I hope they hung the man!

GRANDMOTHER.
They took him up;
There was no proof, no one had seen the deed,
And he was set at liberty. But God
Whose eye beholdeth all things, he had seen
The murder, and the murderer knew that God
Was witness to his crime. He fled the place,
But nowhere could he fly the avenging hand
Of heaven, but nowhere could the murderer rest,
A guilty conscience haunted him, by day,
By night, in company, in solitude,
Restless and wretched, did he bear upon him.
The weight of blood; her cries were in his ears,
Her stifled groans as when he knelt upon her
Always he heard; always he saw her stand
Before his eyes; even in the dead of night
Distinctly seen as tho' in the broad sun.
She stood beside the murderer's bed and yawn'd
Her ghastly wound; till life itself became
A punishment at last he could not bear,
And he confess'd it all, and gave himself
To death, so terrible, he said, it was
To have a guilty conscience!

HARRY.
Was he hung then?

GRANDMOTHER.
Hung and anatomized. Poor wretched man,
Your uncles went to see him on his trial,
He was so pale, so thin, so hollow-eyed,
And such a horror in his meagre face,
They said he look'd like one who never slept.
He begg'd the prayers of all who saw his end
And met his death with fears that well might warn
From guilt, tho' not without a hope in Christ.

[pp. 194-201]