1801
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thalaba the Destroyer.

Thalaba the Destroyer. By Robert Southey. 2 Vols.

Robert Southey


Several episodes in Robert Southey's long Arabian tale recall similar things in the Faerie Queene; there are scenes where the symbolism borders on allegory, though much of the action and imagery appears purely sensational, as irregular as Southey's irregular stanzas (which Shelley would imitate a decade later in his Queen Mab allegory). In the course of the Thalaba Southey takes epigraphs from four of Spenser's works.

Preface: "In the continuation of the Arabian Tales, the Domdaniel is mentioned; a seminary for evil magicians, under the roots of the sea. From this seed the present romance has grown. Let me not be supposed to prefer the rhythm in which it is written, abstractedly considered, to the regular blank verse; the noblest measure, in my judgment, of which our admirable language is capable. For the following Poem I have preferred it, because it suits the varied subject: it is the Arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale" Works (1837) 4:xv.

Monthly Mirror: "His work will not incur the censure passed by the late Mr. Collins upon his Persian Eclogues, namely, that, from erroneous manners, they were 'Irish.' He has read every thing which could inform him on the subject, and his notes are not only illustrations — they were the materials of his poem. We had at first designed an examination of the story, but it is in truth too slight for analysis — it is a work of ornament, and he who should attempt it would succeed like a man who would criticise the mere form of a gothic shrine, regardless of its clustered ornaments, and its gilded tracery — the surface of grotesque art and profuse expence" 12 (October 1801) 243.

Robert Southey to William Taylor of Norwich: "I have also another plan for an Arabian poem of the wildest nature; the title — 'The Destruction of Dom Danyel,' which, if you have read the continuation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, you will recollect to be a seminary for evil magicians under the roots of the sea. It will have all the pomp of Mohammedan fable, relieved by scenes of Arabian life, and these contrasted again by the voluptuousness of Persian scenery and manners" 5 September 1798; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich (1843) 1:223-24.

Robert Southey to John Rickman: "But Thalaba: it has taken up a greater portion of my time than I expected or wished. I have been polishing and polishing, adding and adding, and my unlearned readers ought to thank my very heartily for the toil, unpleasant and unproductive, of translating so many notes ... The MS. (if the French waylay it not) may reach you the beginning of October at the latest; and, if the booksellers fall into my terms, a London printer will despatch one quarto in a month, or two pocket volumes in a fortnight: 100 I will have for 400 4to. copies, 130 for 1000 of the smaller size. The whole property I will not sell, because I expect the poem will become popular, and of course productive" 22 August 1800, in Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 2:103-04.

William Taylor to Robert Southey: "The ladies cannot endure the metre of Thalaba; it is more convenient to the poet than agreeable to the reader. Berime it, and they will bepraise it. It is too descriptive for the men; they want morality in axiomatic sentences, and human passions in strong conflict" 14 November 1801; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich (1843) 1:382.

Anna Seward: "I have read the Poem, which Mr. Southey has written upon this his revolutionary plan, THALABA. It appears to me not to demonstrate the utility but the mischiefs of that plan. Variety, in a certain degree, charms the ear, yet the most precise uniformity of poetic sounds, provided they are elegant, is less wearying than variation so utterly chaotic. This opinion proves very general amongst all the People of letters, who have spoken to me of THALABA" Poetical Register for 1801 (1802; 1815) 409.

Joseph Dennie: "Southey's Thalaba is written in open defiance of all the laws of metre. This rash young man, who is certainly endowed with a fine genius, appears anxious to overthrow the principles of taste and criticism, as well as the character of Henry V. and the maxims of wisest government" Port Folio [Philadelphia] 3 (25 June 1803) 207.

Lord Byron: "Thalaba, Mr. SOUTHEY'S second poem, is written in open defiance of precedent and poetry. Mr. S. wished to produce something novel, and succeeded to a miracle. Joan of Arc was marvellous enough, but Thalaba was one of those poems 'which,' in the words of PORSON, 'will be read when Homer and Virgil are forgotten, but — not till then'" Lord Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) in Poetical Works, ed. E. H. Coleridge (1898-1904) 1:313n.

George Dyer: "Few writers unite the pleasing and moral effects of fable like Mr. Southey. He is the modern poet of romance, full of the gay science, having revived the ancient practice of writing romance in verse as well as in prose. Amadis de Gaul, which he has translated, is perhaps the first romance of chivalry; and his own Thalaba, and Curse of Kehama, are avowedly romances; and, perhaps, some may consider Madoc of the same order. But they all unite pleasing and moral design: few equal him in agreeable, lively, affecting description, and his good principles give strength to his dramatic representations" Poetics (1812) 2:104.

"A": Thalaba opens with "the wandering footsteps of a woman, who is flying with her son over the desarts of Arabia, and the boy is soon left crying in the wilderness, over the lifeless remains of his mother. This child is Thalaba, who by a miracle has escaped from a murderer who has sacrificed his father, an old Arab, named Hodeisa, and all his race. The murderer is the agent of a party of magicians, who dwell in the caverns of Domdaniel, at the bottom of the ocean, and who have been informed that their destroyer is to spring up from the race of Hodeisa. The conflicts between Thalaba and these magicians form the subject of the poem, and at length the young hero penetrates into the retreat of his enemies, and, like another Samson, perishes along with them beneath the ruins of their cavern. Such a story, of course, requires to be supported by all sorts of poetic accessories, and it is but rendering justice to Mr. Southey to say, that be has ably availed himself of the rich colouring of oriental imagery, scenery, and costume" Living Poets of England (1827) 2:7.

Newcastle Magazine: "The worthy laureate's wondrous poem Thalaba the Destroyer, seems to me to owe its greatest charm to the interesting nature of the story. It has not the advantage, like the Fairy Queen, of fine verse. Indeed, in that respect it is so singular, that a great many people, I am pretty sure, would at first sight throw book aside, under the impression that it was composed of nothing but monumental inscriptions; for they could only discern long lines and short ones, without any appearance of rhyme or ordinary blank verse. The fiction, however, fully compensates for all eccentricity of style, and if Thalaba ever can induce a reader to begin it, he cannot resist the temptation, I will assure him, of going through to the end. Now the Fairy Queen is precisely a poem of this class" "The Poetry of Spenser" NS 8 (December 1829) 544.

Thomas Babington Macaulay: "The warmest admirers of Mr. Southey will scarcely, we think, deny that his success has almost always borne an inverse proportion to the degree in which his undertakings have required a logical head. His poems, taken in the mass, stand far higher than his prose works. The Laureate Odes, indeed, among which the Vision of Judgment must be classed, are, for the most part, worse than Pye's, and as bad as Cibber's; nor do we think him generally happy in short pieces. But his longer poems, though full of faults, are nevertheless very extraordinary productions. We doubt greatly whether they will be read fifty years hence, — but that if they are read, they will be admired, we have no doubt whatever" in "Southey's Colloquies" Edinburgh Review 50 (January 1830) 530.

John Wilson: "Of all our living poets, not one has shewn so fine a vein of feeling and fancy as the Laureate, when illustrating the moral affections, by 'truth sever in fairy fiction drest,' — Witness Thalaba and Oneiza, Laduriad and Laila — and all the wild and touching incidents and events with which he complicates his tales, all so beautifully unravelled at the close" Blackwood's Magazine (November 1833) 807.

David Macbeth Moir: "Notwithstanding the wildness, the irregularity, the monstrosity of Southey's Arabian and Hindoo romances, they possess a fascination, a power, and a beauty, which could only have been imparted by the touch of genius. If, occasionally, we miss the polish of high art, we have always the freshness of nature and its variety. Thalaba is in himself an exquisite creation — beautiful in youth, ardent in affection, staunch in virtue, heroic in courage, combining feminine sensibility of heart with more than chivalrous daring" Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 93.

Joseph Devey: "Whatever this poet saw he could group with multiform combinations into definite pictures, as pleasing and diversified as ever glowed in the imaginations of Poussin or Lorraine; but whatever was removed from the sphere of actuality was evidently above his reach. Where materialities end, there Southey's difficulties begin. Hence his magicians and his spirits, whether of the good or bad order, so far as their features are not limned from the models of Spenser, are wretched creations" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 128.

Oliver Elton: "Thalaba (1801) had, as we know, a passing attraction for Shelley, who borrowed for his Queen Mab the irregular blank metres that Southey had himself borrowed from Sayers of Norwich. But Shelley soon outgrew the taste, and reshaped parts of Queen Mab into decasyllabics. It is probable that the original error lay in the metre itself, rather than in Southey's handling of it. He makes the best of a bad business" Survey of English LIterature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:6.

William Haller notes the Spenserianism running through the whole sequence of Southey's epics, Thalaba, Kehama, Madoc, Roderick: "Such was the central theme of Thalaba, derived not from Wordsworth, but from it's author's acknowledged master, Spenser. It would be easy to press too far the search for resemblances between Southey's poem and The Faerie Queene, but it will be enough to point out that, aside from his use of the figure of an appointed hero fighting evil with faith, Southey shows an interesting resemblance to Spenser in the scope of his scheme for a series of epics or romances on mythologies each of which was, no doubt, to present the same recurring hero under various names forever fighting, like the knights from the Faerie Queene's court, the same battles over again. From Spenser to Southey no poet had conceived quite so elaborate a scheme, and none had so nearly acheived it" The Early Life of Robert Southey (1917) 241.



How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air;
No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,
Breaks the serene of heaven:
In full-orb'd glory yonder Moon divine
Rolls through the dark blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert-circle spreads,
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is night!

Who at this untimely hour
Wanders o'er the desert sands?
No station is in view,
Nor palm-grove, islanded amid the waste,
The mother and her child,
The widow'd mother and the fatherless boy,
They at this untimely hour
Wander o'er the desert sands.

Alas! the setting sun
Saw Zeinab in her bliss,
Hodeirah's wife beloved.
Alas! the wife beloved,
The fruitful mother late,
Whom when the daughters of Arabia named,
They wish'd their lot like her's,
She wanders o'er the desert sands
A wretched widow now;
The fruitful mother of so fair a race,
With only one preserved,
She wanders o'er the wilderness.

[1.1-4; Works (1837) 4:3-4]