1794
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The Retrospect.

Poems: containing The Retrospect, Odes, Elegies, Sonnets, &c. By Robert Lovell, and Robert Southey.

Robert Southey


A descriptive ode in heroic couplets signed "Bion"; it is dated "Oxford, 1794" in the poet's collected Poems. In this early work Robert Southey imitates Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted Village through the medium of Samuel Rogers's Pleasures of Memory, stitching the two sources together with scraps of personal narrative. The opening account of Southey's schoolhouse at Corston recalls the opening of The Pleasures of Memory: "Large was the mansion, fall'n by varying fate | From lordly grandeur and manorial state; | Where once the manor's lord supreme had rule, | Now reign'd the master of the village school" p. 5. Southey's visit to his old schoolhouse after an absence of twelve years later also Gray's Eton College Ode, though with much less emphasis on childhood happiness. The poem was much shortened and revised in later editions. "Alston," the name Southey gives to the Auburn of his poem, became "Corston," and "Ariste" "Edith."

While the manner and sentiments of "The Retrospect" are deliberately backwards-looking, in fact Southey's poem marks the beginning of something rather new, the Poems of the Pleasures series as it began to take shape in response to Rogers's poem. "The Retrospect" was quickly followed by Thomas Dermody's "The Retrospect" (1795), Robert Merry's The Pains of Memory (1796), Peter L. Courtier's "Pleasures of Solitude" (1796), Thomas Campbell's The Pleasures of Hope (1799), and Thomas Bidlake's Youth: A Poem (1802). The fascination with memory in the poetry of the era, might be traced to the popular sonnets of William Lisle Bowles (1789).

William Haller: "The school at Corston, bad though it was, had a vivid effect upon Southey's imagination. In 1795, it would seem, he returned to look over the place again in a romantic fit of abstraction, and he composed at about the same time at least two poems inspired by his experience there. 'The Retrospect,' which gives its name to the title-page of his first volume of poems, is a description of his life at Corston, and the sonnet, "To a Brook near the Village of Corston,' is a plaintive remembrance in the manner of Bowles; both were probably written at the same time in 1795. He returned yet again to show the place to his son in 1836, and described it in the preface to 'The Retrospect' in the second volume of his collected poetical works. It was a little village south of the Avon and four or five miles from Bath. Southey's father rode out with the stage-coach that carried the boy, and left him with the master and mistress of the school, who gave him a smiling welcome with talk of tender care and happy sports, but after his father's form had disappeared, 'never spake so civilly again'" Early Life of Robert Southey (1917) 16-17.



On as I journey through the vale of years,
Cheer'd by fond hopes, and chill'd by doubtful fears;
Allow me, Memory, in thy treasur'd store,
To view the days that will return no more:
Oh! let thy vivid pencil call to view
Each distant scene, each long-past hour anew,
Ere yet my bosom knew the touch of grief,
Ere yet my bosom lov'd the lyre's relief.

Yes, at thou dart'st thine intellectual ray,
The clouds of mental darkness melt away:
So when, at earliest day's awakening dawn,
The hovering mists obscure the dewy lawn,
O'er all the champain spread their influence chill,
Hang o'er the vale, and hide the lofty hill;
Anon, slow rising, beams the orb of day,
Slow melt the shadowy mists, and fade away;
The vapours vanish at the view of morn,
And hang in dew-drops on the glistening thorn;
The prospect opens on the pilgrim's sight,
And hills, and vales, and woods, reflect the beam of light.

O thou! the mistress of my future days,
Accept thy minstrel's retrospective lays;
To whom the minstrel and the lyre belong,
Accept, ARISTE, Memory's pensive song!
Of long-past days I sing, ere yet I knew
Or grief and care, or happiness and you;
Ere yet my infant bosom learnt to prove
The pangs of absence, and the hopes of love.

So when the pilgrim, on his journey bent,
With upward toil creeps in the steep ascent;
Ere yet his feet the destin'd height attain,
Oft will he pause, and gaze the journey'd plain;
Oft pause again, the valley to survey,
Where food or slumber sooth'd his wand'ring way.

ALSTON! twelve years, in various business fled,
Have wing'd their restless flight o'er BION'S head;
Twelve years have taught his opening mind to know
The smiles of pleasure, and the frowns of woe;
Since in thy vale, beneath the master's rule
He roam'd an inmate of the village school:
Yet still will memory's busy eye retrace
Each little vestige of the oft-trod place;
Each wonted haunt, each scene of youthful joy,
Where merriment has cheer'd the careless boy:
Well pleased will memory still the spot survey,
Where once he triumph'd in the infant play,
Without one care where every morn he rose,
Where every evening sunk to calm repose.

Large was the mansion, fall'n by varying fate
From lordly grandeur and manorial state;
Where once the manor's lord supreme had rule,
Now reign'd the master of the village school:
No more was heard around, at earliest morn,
The echoing clangor of the huntsman's horn;
No more the eager hounds, with deep'ning cry,
Yell'd in the exulting hope of pastime nigh;
The squire no more obey'd the morning call,
Nor favourite spaniels fill'd the sportsman's hall;
For he, the last descendant of his race,
Slept with his fathers, and forgot the chace.

Fall'n was the manstion: o'er the village poor
The lordly landlord tyranniz'd no more;
For now, in petty greatness o'er the school,
The mighty master held despotic rule;
With trembling silence all his deeds we saw,
His look a mandate, and his word a law;
Severe his voice, severely grave his mien,
And wond'rous strict he was, and wond'rous wise I ween.

Even now, thro' many a long long year, I trace
The hour when first with awe I view'd his face;
Even now recall my entrance at the dome,
'Twas the first day I ever left my home!
Years intervening have not worn away
The deep remembrance of that wretched day;
Effac'd the vestige of my earliest fears,
A mother's fondness, and a mother's tears;
When close she prest me to her sorrowing heart,
As loth as even I myself to part.

But time to youthful sorrows yields relief,
Each various object weans the child from grief:
Like April showers the tears of youth descend,
Sudden they fall, and suddenly they end;
Serener pleasure gilds the following hour,
As brighter gleams the sun when past the April shower.

Methinks ev'n now the interview I see,
Recall the mistress's smile, the master's glee:
Much of my future happiness they said,
Much of the easy life the scholars led;
Of spacious play-ground, and of wholsome air
The best instruction, and the tenderest care;
And when I follow'd from the garden door
My father, 'till with tears I saw no more,
How civilly they eas'd my parting pain,
And never spake so civilly again!

Why loves the soul on earlier years to dwell,
When memory spreads around her saddening spell;
When discontent, with sullen gloom o'ercast,
Loaths at the present, and prefers the past?
Why calls reflection to my pensive view
Each trifling act of infancy anew—
Each trifling act with pleasure pondering o'er,
Even at the time when trifles please no more!
Day follows day, yet leaves no trace behind,
When one sole thought engrosses all the mind;
When anxious reason claims her painful sway,
And for to-morrow's prospect glooms to-day!
Ill fares the wanderer in this vale of life,
When each new stage affords succeeding strife;
In every stage he feels supremely curst,
Yet still the present hour seems the worst:
On as he goes the vision'd prospect flies,
And, grasping still at bliss, unblest at last he dies.

Yet is remembrance sweet; though well I know
The days of childhood are but days of woe;
Some rude restraint, some petty tyrant sours
The tranquil calm of childhood's easy hours;
Some trifling fault committed calls the tear,
Some trifling task neglected prompts to fear:
Yet is it sweet to call to mind the hour,
Ere searching reason gain'd her saddening power;
Ere future prospects could the soul distress,
When even ignorance was happiness.

Such was my state in those remember'd years
When one small acre bounded all my fears:
And even now with pleasure I recall
The tapestry'd school, the bright-brown boarded hall;
The murmuring brook, that every morning saw
The due observance of the cleanly law;
The walnuts, where, when favour would allow,
Full oft I wont to search each well-stript bough;
The crab-tree, which supplied a secret hoard,
With roasted crabs to deck the wintry board.

These trifling pastimes then my soul possest,
These trifling objects still remain imprest:
So when, with unskill'd hand, the rustic hind
Carves the rude legend on the growing rind,
In after years the peasant lives to see
The expanded legend grow as grows the tree.
Though every winter's desolating sway
Shake the hoarse grove and sweep the leaves away,
Deep in its trunk the legend still will last,
Defy the storm, and brave the wintry blast.

Whilst letter'd travellers delight to roam
The time-worn temple and demolish'd dome;
Stray with the Arab o'er the wreck of time
Where erst Palmyra's towers arose sublime,
Or mark the lazy Turk's lethargic pride,
And Grecian slavery on Ilyssus' side:
Oh! be it mine to flee from empire's strife,
And mark the changes of domestic life;
See the fall'n scenes where once I bore a part,
Where every change of fortune strikes the heart;
As when the merry bells' responsive sound
Proclaim the news of victory around;
When eager patriots fly the news to spread
Of glorious conquest, and of thousands dead;
All feel the mighty glow of victor joy,
Exult in blood, and triumph to destroy:
But if extended on the gory plain,
And, snatch'd in conquest, some lov'd friend be slain,
Affection's tears will dim the sorrowing eye,
And suffering nature grieve that one should die.

Oft have my footsteps roam'd the sacred spot
Where heroes, kings, and minstrels, sleep forgot;
Oft traced the mouldering castle's ivy'd wall,
Or ruin'd convent tottering to its fall;
Whilst sad reflection lov'd the solemn gloom,
Paus'd o'er the pile, and ponder'd on the tomb:
Yet never had my bosom felt such pain,
As, ALSTON, when I saw thy scenes again!
For every long-lost pleasure rush'd to view,
For every long-past sorrow rose anew;
Where whilome all were friends, I stood alone,
Unknowing all I saw, of all I saw unknown.

ALSTON! no pilgrim ever crept around
With more emotion Sion's sacred ground,
Than fill'd my heart as slow I saunter'd o'er
Those fields my infant steps had trod of yore;
Where I had loiter'd out the summer hour,
Chas'd the gay butterfly, and cull'd the flower;
Sought the swift arrow's erring course to trace,
Or with mine equals vied amid the chace.

Cold was the morn, and bleak the wintry blast
Howl'd o'er the meadow, when I saw thee last;
My bosom bounded, as I wander'd round
Each well-known field, each long-remember'd ground.
I saw the church where I had slept away
The tedious service of the summer-day;
Or, listening sad to all the preacher told,
In winter wak'd, and shiver'd with the cold;
And, as I pass'd along the well-trod way,
Where whilome two by two we walk'd to pray,
I saw the garden ground as usual rail'd,
A fence, to fetch my ball, I oft had scal'd:
Oh! it recall'd a thousand scenes to view,
A thousand joys to which I long had bid adieu.

Silent and sad the scene: I heard no more
Mirth's honest cry, and childhood's cheerful roar,
No longer echo'd round the shout of glee—
It seem'd as tho' the world were chang'd, like me!
There, where my little hands were wont to rear
With pride the earliest salad of the year;
Where never idle weed to spring was seen,
There the rank nettle rear'd its head obscene.
I too have felt the hand of fate severe—
In those calm days I never knew to fear;
No future views alarm'd my gloomy breast,
No anxious pangs my sickening soul possest;
No grief consum'd me, for I did not know
Increase of reason was increase of woe.

Silent and sad awhile I paus'd, to gaze
On the fall'n dwelling of my earlier days;
Long dwelt the eye on each remember'd spot,
Each long-left scene, long left, but not forgot:
Once more my soul delighted to survey
The brook that murmur'd on its wonted way;
Obedient to the master's dread commands,
Where every morn we wash'd our face and hands;
Where, when the tempest raged along the air,
I wont to rear the dam with eager care;
And eft and aye return'd with joy to find
The neighbouring orchard's fruit shook down by warring wind.

How art thou chang'd! at first the stately pile,
Where pride, and pomp, and pleasure, wont to smile,
Lord of the manor, where the jovial squire
Call'd all his tenants round the crackling fire;
Where, whilst the glow of fame o'espread his face,
He told his ancient exploits in the chace;
And, proud his rival sportsmen to surpass,
He lit again the pipe, and fill'd again the glass.

Past is thy day of glory: past the day
When here the man of learning held his sway:
No more, when howl the wintry storms around,
Within thy hall is heard the mirthful sound;
No more disport around the infant crew,
And high in health the mimic game pursue;
No more to strike the well-aim'd ball delight,
Or rear aloft with joy the buoyant kite.

True, they are fallen: thy day of glory past,
Long may thy day of honest comfort last!
Long may the farmer from his toil retire
To joys domestic round thy evening fire;
Where boisterous riot once supreme has reign'd,
Where discipline his sway severe maintain'd;
May heaven the industrious farmer's labour bless,
And crown his honest toil with happiness.

Seat of my earlier, happier years, farewell!
Thy memory still in BION'S breast shall dwell:
Still as he journeys life's rough road along,
Or sojourns sad, this college gloom among,
Will fond remembrance paint those careless days,
When all he wish'd was speedy holydays!

ALSTON, how many a pang has wrung my heart,
Since from thy scenes in youth I joy'd to part!
How often has my bosom shrunk to know
The sigh of sorrow, and the weight of woe
I knew not even the comfort of a tear
O'er a beloved father's timeless bier;
His clay-cold limbs I saw the grave inclose,
And blest that fate which snatch'd him from his woes.

Why wilt thou, Memory, still recall to view
Each long-past joy, each long-lost friend anew?
Paint not the scenes that pleas'd my soul of yore,
Those friends are gone, those long-past joys no more;
Cease to torment me, busy torturer, cease,
Let cold oblivion's touch benumb my soul to peace!

So when the morning smiles serene and mild,
The cheerful pilgrim wanders o'er the wild;
Soft through the bowering wood the breezes blow,
And bubbling fountains sparkle as they flow;
Sweet is to him the woodland's secret glade,
Sweet the deep shelter of the dingle's shade:
And oft he stops, delighted to survey
The high hill's top reflect the lucid ray;
Anon the face of heaven is overcast,
Hoarse groan the woods responsive to the blast;
The wild winds howl, the torrents thunder down,
With darker hues the sullen mountains frown;
All that the pilgrim, late with joy possest,
O'ercast by horror now, englooms his shrinking breast.

Yet, as the mariner, when tempest tost,
Aghast he stands, and gives up all for lost;
If at the moment, when with faultering breath
He calls to heaven, and waits the rushing death;
If then he sees the twin-born lights descend,
His bosom brightens, and his terrors end.
ARISTE! so when memory's painful sway
Recalls the sorrow of the distant day;
When the soft soother turns at length to thee,
The gloom disperses, and the shadows flee;
Grief's cankering pangs no more my bosom move,
That beating bosom only bounds to Love.

[pp. 3-15]