1825
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Tale of Paraguay.

A Tale of Paraguay. By Robert Southey, Esq. LL.D. Poet Laureate.

Robert Southey


A verse romance in 224 Spenserians. Robert Southey's mystery tale is taken from a Latin narrative composed in Paraguay by the Jesuit priest Dobrizhoffer, witness to the deaths of a family of family of Indians he had rescued from total isolation and converted to Christianity. Like his earlier St. Juan Gualberto, the story handles Catholic superstition with an ethnographic objectivity, while inviting Protestant readers to share in the wonders of the narrative. To carry this off, the poem makes recourse to the whole armory of Spenserian devices used to convey a half-ironic simplicity.

The use of a stanza Southey loved yet avoided is perhaps in indication that on this occasion at least he wished to be seen as contributing to a well-worn tradition in English poetry. At the back of it is book six of the Faerie Queene with its reflections on civilization and savagery, but Southey's treatment of his historical subject engages the "Paradise Lost" theme as it appears in several more recent Spenserian works: Glocester Ridley's Ridley's Psyche, or the Great Metamorphosis, James Beattie's The Minstrel, and Thomas Campbell's Gertrude of Wyoming. The poem's overt Christianity and moral subtlety might be seen as a reproof to Campbell, though Southey's poem enjoyed none of Campbell's success. The Tale of Parguay was begun as early as 1814; its origins can be traced in a long, undated entry in Southey's Common-Place Book (1849-51) 4:276-78. In 1819 British Stage and Literary Cabinet announced "Mr. Southey will soon publish a poem, in small 8vo. called The Fall of Paraguay" 3 (September 1819) 266.

Preface: "One of my friends observed to me in a letter, that many stories which are said to be 'founded' on fact, have in reality been 'foundered' on it. This is the case if there be any gross violation committed, or ignorance betrayed, of historical manners in the prominent parts of a narrative wherein the writer affects to observe them: or when the ground-work is taken from some part of history so popular and well known that any mixture of fiction disturbs the sense of truth. Still more so, if the subject be in itself so momentous that any allay of invention must of necessity debase it: but most of all in themes drawn from scripture, whether from the more familiar, or the more awful portions; for when what is true is sacred, whatever may be added to it is so surely felt to be false, that it appears profane. Founded on fact the Poem is, which is here committed to the world: but whatever may be its defects, it is liable to none of these objections. The story is so singular, so simple, and withal so complete, that it must have been injured by any alterations. How faithfully it has been followed, the reader may perceive it he chooses to consult the abridged translation of Dobrizhoffer's History of the Abipones; and for those who may be gratified with what Pinkerton has well called the lively singularity of the old man's Latin, the passage from the original is here subjoined" p. iv.

Walter Savage Landor to Robert Southey [then at work on Tale of Paraguay]: "You delight me by saying that you must take up the poems which have been so long on hand. The stanza of Spenser is less difficult to you than to any one. It has made poets, and ought not to deter one. How infinitely more pure is Thomson in his admirable Castle of Indolence than elsewhere and Shenstone in his Schoolmistress! How greatly has Wordsworth surpassed the noblest passages of Spenser himself in his Laodamia!" August 1820; John Forster, Walter Savage Landor: a Biography (1869) 283.

Robert Southey to Walter Savage Landor: "There is no difficulty in writing English hexameters upon the principles of adaptation on which I proceeded. They are not more complicated than blank verse, and infinitely easier than the complicated stanza of Spenser; which I shall never write again when my present task [Tale of Paraguay] is over, on account of the time that it costs me. I am not so sure that I may not write in hexameters again" 11 December 1824; Forster, Landor, a Biography (1869) 381.

Q.: "In times past, Dr. Southey diversified the simple element of the Lakes with a portion of the Arabesque; but latterly, and especially in the present instance, he has resolutely adhered to pure water, without a particle of nitrous or any other spirit to keep the chill off the stomach. As Swift observed of another poem, it is so cold, an ass's hoof alone can sustain it. Still we have some pleasing descriptive stanzas, and occasionally something which may be denominated a thought; but the incident on which the poem is founded, is so singular, and so infinitely more singular the Laureate's mode of treating it, we proceed at once to our more direct object, which is to shew the curious theoretical piety of the volunteer Champion of Mother Church, and to prove that, if inquisitorially assailed, it is doubtful if that very church would acknowledge him. Were he at this time in need of confirmation, we hold four to one, that the Bishop of Peterborough at least would not pass him" The Examiner (17 October 1824) 660.

La Belle Assemblee: "This tale, in four cantos, is founded upon and taken, closely, with respect to its leading incidents, from a simple relation, in the Latin, of Dobrizhoffer, the Jesuit, which Southey accidentally discovered in the course of his multifarious reading and research for the history of Brazil. Monnema had fled with her husband from one of the Indian settlements where the small-pox was committing the most dreadful ravages. In her solitary retreat, amongst the marshes and forests beyond the Mondai river, where she had given birth to two children, a son and a daughter, she is found by Dobrizhoffer, who prevails upon her — her husband, previously to the birth of her second child, having been devoured in the forest by a wild beast — to accompany him to the Jesuit town of St. Joachim, in Paraguay. There, pining for the enjoyments of 'sweet home,' dear to the Indians as to the Swiss, the mother and her daughter successively expire. The surviving son, agonized by his loss, is rapidly sinking into the grave. Imagination brings to his nightly couch the spirits of the dear departed, who implore him to follow the example of his mother and sister, to enter the communion of the new faith, and thus to be for ever united with them in the Christian's world of happiness. He prevails upon the Jesuit to baptize him, as he had before baptized his beloved relatives; and he dies almost immediately after the performance of the sacred rite. — This is only an imperfect sketch of a simple story, thrown by Dr. Southey into very graceful verse" S3 2 (September 1825) 124-25.

Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "Southey's Tale of Paraguay — a poem which contained a few good passages. It was said of it that it was like an old woman's recipe — that it might be safely taken, for if it did little good, it would do no harm" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 2:109n.

The first canto describes an isolated tribe of Indians devastated by small pox; two alone survive, Quiara and Monnema, "the last of all their race." Alone in the forest, they become a second Adam and Eve, rejoicing when a son is born, called Yeruti or "the dove." At the end of the canto Monnema discovers her husband slain by a jaguar.



Jenner! for ever shall thy honour'd name
Among the children of mankind be blest,
Who by thy skill hast taught us how to tame
One dire disease, . . the lamentable pest
Which Africa sent forth to scourge the West,
As if in vengeance for her sable brood
So many an age remorselessly opprest.
For that most fearful malady subdued
Receive a poet's praise, a father's gratitude.

Fair promise be this triumph of an age
When Man, with vain desires no longer blind,
And wise though late, his only war shall wage
Against the miseries which afflict mankind,
Striving with virtuous heart and strenuous mind
Till evil from the earth shall pass away.
Lo, this his glorious destiny assign'd!
For that blest consummation let us pray,
And trust in fervent faith, and labour as we may.

The hideous malady which lost its power
When Jenner's art the dire contagion stay'd,
Among Columbia's sons, in fatal hour,
Across the wide, Atlantic wave convey'd
Its fiercest form of pestilence display'd:
Where'er its deadly course the plague began
Vainly the wretched sufferer look'd for aid;
Parent from child, and child from parent ran,
For tyrannous fear dissolved all natural bonds of man.

A feeble nation of Guarani race,
Thinn'd by perpetual wars, but unsubdued,
Had taken up at length a resting place
Among those tracts of lake and swamp and wood,
where Mondai issuing from its solitude
Flows with slow stream to Empalado's bed.
It was a region desolate and rude;
But thither had the horde for safety fled,
And being there conceal'd in peace their lives they led.

There had the tribe a safe asylum found
Amid those marshes wide and woodlands dense,
With pathless wilds and waters spread around,
And labyrinthine swamps, a sure defence
From human foes, . . . but not from pestilence.
The spotted plague appear'd, that direst ill, . . .
How brought among them none could tell, or whence;
The mortal seed had lain among them still,
And quicken'd now to work the Lord's mysterious will.

Alas, it was no medicable grief
Which herbs might reach! Nor could the juggler's power
With all his antic mummeries bring relief.
Faith might not aid him in that ruling hour,
Himself a victim now. The dreadful stour
None could escape, nor aught its force assuage.
The marriageable maiden had her dower
From death; the strong man sunk beneath its rage,
And death cut short the thread of childhood and of age.

No time for customary mourning now;
With hand close-clench'd to pluck the rooted hair,
To beat the bosom, on the swelling brow
Inflict redoubled blows, and blindly tear
The cheeks, indenting bloody furrows there,
The deep-traced signs indelible of woe;
Then to some crag, or bank abrupt, repair,
And giving grief its scope infuriate, throw
The impatient body thence upon the earth below.

Devices these by poor weak nature taught,
Which thus a change of suffering would obtain;
And flying from intolerable thought
And piercing recollections, would full fain
Distract itself by sense of fleshly pain
From anguish that the soul must else endure.
Easier all outward torments to sustain,
Than those heart-wounds which only time can cure,
And He in whom alone the hopes of man are sure.

None sorrow'd here; the sense of woe was sear'd,
When every one endured his own sore ill.
The prostrate sufferers neither hoped nor fear'd;
The body labour'd, but the heart was still: . . .
So let the conquering malady fulfil
Its fatal course, rest cometh at the end!
Passive they lay with neither wish nor will
For aught but this; nor did they long attend
That welcome boon from death, the never-failing friend.

Who is there to make ready now the pit,
The house that will content from this day forth
Its easy tenant? Who in vestments fit
Shall swathe the sleeper for his bed of earth,
Now tractable as when a babe at birth?
Who now the ample funeral urn shall knead,
And burying it beneath his proper hearth
Deposit there with careful hands the dead,
And lightly then relay the floor above his head?

Unwept, unshrouded, and unsepulchred,
The hammock where they hang, for winding sheet
And grave suffices the deserted dead:
There from the armadillo's searching feet
Safer than if within the tomb's retreat.
The carrion birds obscene in vain essay
To find that quarry: round and round they beat
The air, but fear to enter for their prey,
And from the silent door the jaguar turns away.

But nature for her universal law
Hath other surer instruments in store,
Whom from the haunts of men no wonted awe
Withholds as with a spell. In swarms they pour
From wood and swamp: and when their work is o'er
On the white bones the mouldering roof will fall;
Seeds will take root, and spring in sun and shower;
And Mother Earth ere long with her green pall,
Resuming to herself the wreck, will cover all.

Oh! better thus with earth to have their part,
Than in Egyptian catacombs to lie,
Age after age preserved by horrid art,
In ghastly image of humanity!
Strange pride that with corruption thus would vie!
And strange delusion that would thus maintain
The fleshly form, till cycles shall pass by,
And in the series of the eternal chain,
The spirit come to seek its old abode again.

One pair alone survived the general fate;
Left in such drear and mournful solitude,
That death might seem a preferable state.
Not more deprest the Arkite patriarch stood,
When landing first on Ararat he view'd,
Where all around the mountain summits lay,
Like islands seen amid the boundless flood!
Nor our first parents more forlorn than they,
Thro' Eden when they took their solitary way.

Alike to them, it seem'd in their despair,
Whither they wander'd from the infected spot.
Chance might direct their steps: they took no care;
Come well or ill to them, it matter'd not!
Left as they were in that unhappy lot,
The sole survivors they of all their race,
They reck'd not when their fate, nor where, nor what,
In this resignment to their hopeless case,
Indifferent to all choice or circumstance of place.

That palsying stupor past away ere long,
And as the spring of health resumed its power,
They felt that life was dear, and hope was strong.
What marvel! 'Twas with them the morning hour,
When bliss appears to be the natural dower
Of all the creatures of this joyous earth;
And sorrow fleeting like a vernal shower
Scarce interrupts the current of our mirth;
Such is the happy heart we bring with us at birth.

Tho' of his nature and his boundless love
Erring, yet tutor'd by instinctive sense,
They rightly deem'd the Power who rules above
Had saved them from the wasting pestilence.
That favouring power would still be their defence:
Thus were they by their late deliverance taught
To place a child-like trust in Providence,
And in their state forlorn they found this thought
Of natural faith with hope and consolation fraught.

And now they built themselves a leafy bower,
Amid a glade, slow Mondai's stream beside,
Screen'd from the southern blast of piercing power:
Not like their native dwelling, long and wide,
By skilful toil of numbers edified,
The common home of all, their human nest,
Where threescore hammocks pendant side by side
Were ranged, and on the ground the fires were drest;
Alas that populous hive hath now no living guest!

A few firm stakes they planted in the ground,
Circling a narrow space, yet large enow;
These strongly interknit they closed around
With basket-work of many a pliant bough.
The roof was like the sides; the door was low,
And rude the hut, and trimm'd with little care,
For little heart had they to dress it now;
Yet was the humble structure fresh and fair,
And soon its inmates found that Love might sojourn there.

Quiara could recall to mind the course
Of twenty summers; perfectly he knew
Whate'er his fathers taught of skill or force.
Right to the mark his whizzing lance he threw,
And from his bow the unerring arrow flew
With fatal aim: and when the laden bee
Buzz'd by him in its flight, he could pursue
Its path with certain ken, and follow free
Until he traced the hive in hidden bank or tree.

Of answering years was Monnema, nor less
Expert in all her sex's household ways.
The Indian weed she skilfully could dress;
And in what depth to drop the yellow maize
She knew, and when around its stem to raise
The lighten'd soil; and well could she prepare
Its ripen'd seed for food, her proper praise;
Or in the embers turn with frequent care
Its succulent head yet green, sometimes for daintier fare.

And how to macerate the bark she knew,
And draw apart its beaten fibres fine,
And bleaching them in sun, and air, and dew;
From dry and glossy filaments entwine
With rapid twirl of hand the lengthening line;
Next interknitting well the twisted thread,
In many an even mesh its knots combine,
And shape in tapering length the pensile bed,
Light hammock there to hang beneath the leafy shed.

Time had been when expert in works of clay
She lent her hands the swelling urn to mould,
And fill'd it for the appointed festal day
With the beloved beverage which the bold
Quaff'd in their triumph and their joy of old;
The fruitful cause of many an uproar rude,
When in their drunken bravery uncontroll'd,
Some bitter jest awoke the dormant feud,
And wrath and rage and strife and wounds and death ensued.

These occupations were gone by: the skill
Was useless now, which once had been her pride.
Content were they, when thirst impell'd, to fill
The dry and hollow gourd from Mondai's side;
The river from its sluggish bed supplied
A draught for repetition all unmeet;
Howbeit the bodily want was satisfied;
No feverish pulse ensued, nor ireful heat,
Their days were undisturb'd, their natural sleep was sweet.

She too had learnt in youth how best to trim
The honoured Chief for his triumphal day,
And covering with soft gums the obedient limb
And body, then with feathers overlay,
In regular hues disposed, a rich display.
Well-pleased the glorious savage stood and eyed
The growing work; then vain of his array
Look'd with complacent frown from side to side,
Stalk'd with elater step, and swell'd with statelier pride.

Feasts and carousals, vanity and strife,
Could have no place with them in solitude
To break the tenor of their even life.
Quiara day by day his game pursued,
Searching the air, the water, and the wood,
With hawk-like eye, and arrow sure as fate;
And Monnema prepared the hunter's food:
Cast with him here in this forlorn estate,
In all things for the man was she a fitting mate.

The Moon had gather'd oft her monthly store
Of light, and oft in darkness left the sky,
Since Monnema a growing burthen bore
Of life and hope. The appointed weeks go by;
And now her hour is come, and none is nigh
To help: but human help she needed none.
A few short throes endured with scarce a cry,
Upon the bank she laid her new-born son,
Then slid into the stream, and bathed, and all was done.

Might old observances have there been kept,
Then should the husband to that pensile bed,
Like one exhausted with the birth have crept,
And laying down in feeble guise his head,
For many a day been nursed and dieted
With tender care, to childing mothers due.
Certes a custom strange, and yet far spread
Thro' many a savage tribe, howe'er it grew,
And once in the old world known as widely as the new.

This could not then be done; he might not lay
The bow and those unerring shafts aside;
Nor thro' the appointed weeks forego the prey,
Still to be sought amid those regions wide,
None being there who should the while provide
That lonely household with their needful food:
So still Quiara thro' the forest plied
His daily task, and in the thickest wood
Still laid his snares for birds, and still the chace pursued.

But seldom may such thoughts of mingled joy
A father's agitated breast dilate,
As when he first beheld that infant boy.
Who hath not prov'd it, ill can estimate
The feeling of that stirring hour, . . . the weight
Of that new sense, the thoughtful, pensive bliss.
In all the changes of our changeful state,
Even from the cradle to the grave, I wis,
The heart doth undergo no change so great as this.

A deeper and unwonted feeling fill'd
These parents, gazing on their new born son.
Already in their busy hopes they build
On this frail sand. Now let the seasons run,
And let the natural work of time be done
With them, . . for unto them a child is born:
And when the hand of Death may reach the one,
The other will not now be left to mourn
A solitary wretch, all utterly forlorn.

Thus Monnema and thus Quiara thought,
Tho' each the melancholy thought represt;
They could not chuse but feel, yet uttered not
The human feeling, which in hours of rest
Often would rise, and fill the boding breast
With a dread foretaste of that mournful day,
When, at the inexorable Power's behest,
The unwilling spirit, called perforce away,
Must leave, for ever leave its dear connatural clay.

Link'd as they were, where each to each was all,
How might the poor survivor hope to bear
That heaviest loss which one day must befall,
Nor sink beneath the weight of his despair.
Scarce could the heart even for a moment dare
That miserable time to contemplate,
When the dread Messenger should find them there,
From whom is no escape, . . . and reckless Fate,
Whom it had bound so close, for ever separate.

Lighter that burthen lay upon the heart
When this dear babe was born to share their lot;
They could endure to think that they must part.
Then too a glad consolatory thought
Arose, while gazing on the child they sought
With hope their dreary prospect to delude,
Till they almost believed, as fancy taught,
How that from them a tribe should spring renew'd,
To people and possess that ample solitude.

Such hope they felt, but felt that whatsoe'er
The undiscoverable to come might prove,
Unwise it were to let that bootless care
Disturb the present hours of peace and love.
For they had gain'd a happiness above
The state which in their native horde was known:
No outward causes were there here to move
Discord and alien thoughts; being thus alone
From all mankind, their hearts and their desires were one.

Different their love in kind and in degree
From what their poor depraved forefathers knew,
With whom degenerate instincts were left free
To take their course, and blindly to pursue,
Unheeding they the ills that must ensue,
The bent of brute desire. No moral tie
Bound the hard husband to his servile crew
Of wives; and they the chance of change might try,
All love destroy'd by such preposterous liberty.

Far other tie this solitary pair
Indissolubly bound; true helpmates they,
In joy or grief, in weal or woe to share,
In sickness or in health, thro' life's long day;
And reassuming in their hearts her sway
Benignant Nature made the burthen light.
It was the Woman's pleasure to obey,
The Man's to ease her toil in all he might,
So each in serving each obtain'd the best delight.

And as connubial, so parental love
Obey'd unerring Nature's order here,
For now no force of impious custom strove
Against her law; . . . such as was wont to sear
The unhappy heart with usages severe,
Till harden'd m others in the grave could lay
Their living babes with no compunctious tear,
So monstrous men become, when from the way
Of primal light they turn thro' heathen paths astray.

Deliver'd from this yoke, in them, henceforth
The springs of natural love may freely flow:
New joys, new virtues with that happy birth
Are born, and with the growing infant grow.
Source of our purest happiness below
Is that benignant law which hath entwined
Dearest delight with strongest duty so
That in the healthy heart and righteous mind
Ever they co-exist, inseparably combined.

Oh! bliss for them when in that infant face
They now the unfolding faculties descry,
And fondly gazing, trace . . . or think they trace . . .
The first faint speculation in that eye,
Which hitherto hath roll'd in vacancy!
Oh! bliss in that soft countenance to seek
Some mark of recognition, and espy
The quiet smile which in the innocent cheek
Of kindness and of kind its consciousness doth speak!

For him, if born among their native tribe,
Some haughty name his parents had thought good,
As weening that therewith they should ascribe
The strength of some fierce tenant of the wood,
The water, or the aerial solitude,
Jaguar or vulture, water-wolf or snake,
The beast that prowls abroad in search of blood,
Or reptile that within the treacherous brake
Waits for the prey, upcoil'd, its hunger to aslake.

Now soften'd as their spirits were by love,
Abhorrent from such thoughts they turn'd away:
And with a happier feeling, from the dove,
They named the child Yeruti. On a day
When smiling at his mother's breast in play,
They in his tones of murmuring pleasure heard
A sweet resemblance of the stock-dove's lay,
Fondly they named him from that gentle bird,
And soon such happy use endear'd the fitting word.

Days pass, and moons have wex'd and waned, and still
This dovelet nestled in their leafy bower
Obtains increase of sense, and strength and will,
As in due order many a latent power
Expands, . . . humanity's exalted dower:
And they while thus the days serenely fled
Beheld him flourish like a vigorous flower
Which lifting from a genial soil its head
By seasonable suns and kindly showers is fed.

Ere long the cares of helpless babyhood
To the next stage of infancy give place,
That age with sense of conscious growth endued,
When every gesture hath its proper grace:
Then come the unsteady step, the tottering pace;
And watchful hopes and emulous thoughts appear;
The imitative lips essay to trace
Their words, observant both with eye and ear,
In mutilated sounds which parents love to hear.

Serenely thus the seasons pass away;
And, oh! how rapidly they seem to fly
With those for whom to-morrow like to-day
Glides on in peaceful uniformity!
Five years have since Yeruti's birth gone by,
Five happy years; . . . and ere the Moon which then
Hung like a Sylphid's light canoe on high
Should fill its circle, Monnema again
Laying her burthen down must bear a mother's pain.

Alas, a keener pang before that day,
Must by the wretched Monnema be borne!
In quest of game Quiara went his way
To roam the wilds as he was wont, one morn;
She look'd in vain at eve for his return.
By moonlight thro' the midnight solitude
She sought him; and she found his garment torn,
His bow and useless arrows in the wood,
Marks of a jaguar's feet, a broken spear, and blood.

[pp. 19-42]

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