Robert Southey envisions a Robin-Hood pastoral in jottings that link many of the threads in the evolution of Spenserian poetry: moral realism in pastoral, historical consciousness, social history, interest in folk tales. While most of the entries in the commonplace book are not dated, the idea of taking Robin Hood as a tutelary figure "like the Arthur of Spenser" in an outlaw romance perhaps indicates an early date.
The issue of "moral anachronism" bedeviled writers trying to write gothic poetry on the model of Beattie's The Minstrel — at least until Walter Scott pointed the way in his Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), the publication of which might have led Southey to lay this design aside.
Robert Southey collected materials for a Robin Hood poem over many years, proposing a collaboration on the project with Caroline Bowles, who later became his second wife.
The four massive volumes of Southey's commonplace books are one of the more remarkable antiquarian documents ever published and deserve more attention than they have received.
George Saintsbury: "He did not write very rapidly; and he corrected, both in MS. and in proof, with the utmost sedulity. Of the nearly 14,000 books which he possessed at his death, it is safe to say that all had been methodically read, and most read many times; while his almost mediaeval diligence did not hesitate at working through a set of folios to obtain the information or the corrections necessary for a single article" History of Nineteenth Century Literature 1896) 66.
Pastoral poetry must be made interesting by story. The characters must be such as are to be found in nature; these must be sought in an age or country of simple manners.
The shepherds and shepherdesses of romance are beings that can be found nowhere. Such a work will not, therefore, be pastoral, but it will be something better. It will neither have pastoral love nor pastoral verses.
I think a good story may be made of Robin Hood — my old favourite. It must have forest scenery, forest manners, and outlaw morality. Should he be the principal character, or like the Arthur of Spenser — a kind of tutelary hero?
Some tale of feudal tyranny may be grafted on; perhaps made the principal action. A neif with an evil lord.
The age of Robin Hood is in every point favourable. The royal authority was lax enough to allow any undue power to a distant lord. The crusading spirit abroad, some little heresy also in the world; chivalry in perfection; and practical equality in Sherwood.
Perhaps the old system of wardship would be the best hinge. For the first time I wish for my law books.
But with all this, what becomes of the pastoral? Every thing, however, that is good in the pastoral may still be retained. Scenes of natural beauty, and descriptions of simple life.
The popular belief of fairies, goblins, witches, and ghosts, and the Catholic saint-system render any machinery needless.
It is difficult to avoid a moral anachronism. We can go back to old scenery and old manners, but not to old associations. In this subject I shall not much feel this defect. There is no difficulty in thinking like Robin Hood; and persecuted affection must feel pretty much the same in all ages.
In this I can introduce the fine incident of my schoolboy tale. After long absence a young man approaches his native castle, and finds it in ruins. It is evening; and by the moonlight he sees a woman sitting on a grave. His beaver is down. She runs to him, and calls him father; for it is his sister, watching her father's grave, a maniac.