1797
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah. A Plaintive Tale. [English Eclogues III. The Funeral.]

Monthly Magazine 4 (October 1797) 287.

Robert Southey


A particularly dismal story of an abandoned woman, later revised as "Hannah." This poem stands in place of the pastoral elegy invariably included in traditional sets of eclogues; it first appeared in the Monthly Magazine for 1797. Robert Southey to John May: "Do you recollect the story I told you of the poor woman at Burton? I have thrown it into verse and would sent it you, but that it will appear in the Monthly Magazine" 6 October 1797.

Southey's note: "It is proper to remark that the story related in this Eclogue is strictly true. I met the funeral, and learnt the circumstances in a village in Hampshire. The indifference of the child was mentioned to me; indeed no addition whatever has been made to the story. I should have thought it wrong to have weakened the effect of a faithful narrative by adding any thing" 202n. An earlier draft of the poem appears in Robert Southey's Common-Place Book (1849-51) 4:53-54.

Oliver Elton: "A tiny link between noble plain stones like 'Michael,' and Crabbe's or Cowper's work, narrative or reflective, of lower pitch and fainter flame, is found in Southey's four English Eclogues, written between 1797 and 1804. In one, 'The Old Mansion-House,' the blank verse is so near the 'real language of men' that it has no plea left for existing; indeed, few of the Lyrical Ballads are more liable to this reproach.... In another idyll, 'Hannah,' Wordsworth's grave transforming touch is only just missed; the subject, the death of a deserted girl, is like a tale in The Excursion. 'The Ruined Cottage' is like the homelier and more playful descriptions of The Prelude, with a not unpleasant stroke added of Cowper-like moralising.... 'The Alderman's Funeral,' a satire upon a stony-hearted rich local man who dies unregretted except on his tombstone, is just like Crabbe without Crabbe's couplets. Surely, but for those long tyrannous epics, which consumed his life in tasks that were beyond him, Southey might have done more in these low-lying forms of poetry, which have a faint scent of the autumnal earth" Survey of English LIterature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:3.



The coffin as I past across the lane
Came sudden on my view. It was not here,
A sight of every day, as in the streets
Of the great city, and we paus'd and ask'd
Who to the grave was going. It was one,
A village girl, they told us, who had borne
An eighteen months strange illness, and had pined
With such slow wasting that the hour of death
Came welcome to her. We pursued our way
To the house of mirth, and with that idle talk
That passes o'er the mind and is forgot,
We wore away the time. But it was eve
When homewardly I went, and in the air
Was that cool freshness, that discolouring shade
That makes the eye turn inward. Then I heard
Over the vale the heavy toll of death
Sound slow; it made me think upon the dead.
I questioned more and learnt her sorrowful tale.
She bore unhusbanded a mother's name,
And he who should have cherished her, far off
Sail'd on the seas, self-exil'd from his home,
For he was poor. Left thus, a wretched one,
Scorn made a mock of her, and evil tongues
Were busy with her name. She had one ill
Heavier, neglect, forgetfulness from him
Whom she had loved so dearly. Once he wrote,
But only once that drop of comfort came
To mingle with her cup of wretchedness;
And when his parents had some tidings from him,
There was no mention of poor Hannah there,
Or 'twas the cold enquiry, bitterer
Than silence. So she pined and pined away
And for herself and baby toil'd and toil'd,
Nor did she, even on her death bed, rest
From labour, knitting with her outstretch'd arms
'Till she sunk with very weakness. Her old mother
Omitted no kind office, and she work'd
Hard, and with hardest working barely earn'd
Enough to make life struggle and prolong
The pains of grief and sickness. Thus she lay
On the sick bed of poverty, so worn
With her long suffering and that painful thought
That at her heart lay rankling, and so weak,
That she could make no effort to express
Affection for her infant; and the child,
Whose lisping love perhaps had solaced her
With a strange infantine ingratitude
Shunn'd her as one indifferent. She was past
That anguish, for she felt her hour draw on,
And 'twas her only comfort now to think
Upon the grave. "Poor girl!" her mother said,
"Thou hast suffered much!" "aye mother! there is none
Can tell what I have suffered!" she replied,
But I shall soon be where the weary rest."
And she did rest her soon, for it pleased God
To take her to his mercy.

[Poems (1799) 202-05]