English Eclogues V. The Witch.

Poems, by Robert Southey. The Second Volume.

Robert Southey

Witchcraft is displayed in two opposing lights as the village curate defends an unfortunate woman against rural bigotry — Robert Southey takes the traditional eclogue theme of superstition in a very new direction. Theocritus treats of ugliness comically in his Idyll XI: "Yes, yes I know the cause of your disdain; | For, stretcht from ear to ear with shagged grace, | My single brow adds horror to my face" (Fawkes trans.). Perhaps the introduction of the curate is intended to recall Spenser's theological eclogues.

William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "Your idylls — have they a turn too uniformly plaintive and melancholy? Must each include a scene of distress — a pathetic tale? A weeping willow, waving in a gale of sighs over a pond of tears, is a luxurious object two or three times, but not a whole alley of weeping willows. Apollo in tears over the wounded Hyacinth is a fine subject for the painter, but not Argus in tears. Do our rustic manners afford no cheerful sides, no pictures of felicity, no graceful merriment? Have we no May-days, no harvest homes, no Christmas-times? Is not superstition natural to country-folks, and convenient to the poet? Milton seems to have thought the elfin mythology fitted for the eclogue, when he talks of 'Young and old come forth to play | On a sunshine holiday,' and describes the stories they told 'over the spicy nut-brown ale.' A few rawhead and bloody-bone stories, so told, might have their effect, and would suit that species of tragic eclogue to which you seem to tend; but such things are probably already printed off" 4 January 1799; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor (1843) 1:241-42.

Francis Jeffrey: "Now, the different classes of society have each of them distinct character, as well as a separate idiom; and the names of the various passions to which they are subject respectively, have a signification that varies essentially, according to the condition of the persons to whom they are applied. The love, or grief, or indignation of an enlightened and refined character, is not only expressed in a different language, but is in itself a different emotion from the love, or grief, or anger of a clown, a tradesman, or a market-wench. The things themselves are radically and obviously distinct; and the representation of them is calculated to convey a very different train of sympathies and sensations to the mind. The question, therefore, comes simply to be — Which of them is the most proper object for poetical imitation? It is needless for us to answer a question, which the practice of all the world has long ago decided irrevocably. The poor and vulgar may interest us, in poetry, by their situation; but never, we apprehend, by any sentiments that are peculiar to their condition, and still less by any language that is characteristic of it" Review of Southey, Thalaba; Edinburgh Review 1 (October 1802) 66.

Robert Southey to John May: "As for my contempt of the received rules of poetry, I hold the same rules which Shakspeare, Spencer, and Milton held before me, and desire to be judged by those rules; nor have I proceeded upon any principal of taste which is not be be found in all the great masters of the art of every age and country wherein the art has been understood" 5 August 1810; in Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 3:190.

Father! here father! I have found a horse-shoe!
Faith it was just in time, for t'other night
I laid two straws across at Margery's door,
And afterwards I fear'd that she might do me
A mischief for't. There was the Miller's boy
Who set his dog at that black cat of her's,
I met him upon crutches, and he told me
'Twas all her evil eye.

'Tis rare good luck;
I would have gladly given a crown for one
If t'would have done as well. But where did'st find it?

Down on the common; I was going a-field
And neighbour Saunders pass'd me on his mare;
He hid hardly said "good day," before I saw
The shoe drop off; 'twas just upon my tongue
To call him back, — it makes no difference, does it,
Because I know whose 'twas?

Why no, it can't.
The shoe's the same you know, and you did find it.

That mare of his has got a plaguey road
To travel, father, and if he should lame her,
For she is but tender-footed,—

Aye, indeed—
I should not like to see her limping back
Poor beast! but charity begins at home,
And Nat, there's our own horse in such a way
This morning!

Why he ha'nt been rid again!
Last night I hung a pebble by the manger
With a hole thro', and every body says
That 'tis a special charm against the hags.

It could not be a proper natural hole then,
Or 'twas not a right pebble, — for I found him,
Smoking with sweat, quaking in every limb,
And panting so! God knows where he had been
When we were all asleep, thro' bush and brake
Up-hill and down-hill all alike, full stretch
At such a deadly rate

By land and water,
Over the sea perhaps! — I have heard tell
That 'tis some thousand miles, almost at the end
Of the world, where witches go to meet the Devil.
They used to ride on broomsticks, and to smear
Some ointment over them and then away
Out of the window! but 'tis worse than all
To worry the poor beasts so. Shame upon it
That in a christian country they should let
Such creatures live!

And when there's such plain proof
I did but threaten her because she robb'd
Our hedge, and the next night there came a wind
That made me shake to hear it in my bed
How came it that that storm unroofed my barn,
And only mine in the parish? look at her
And that's enough; she has it in her face—
A pair of large dead eyes, sunk in her head,
Just like a corpse, and purs'd with wrinkles round,
A nose and chin that scarce leave room between
For her lean fingers to squeeze in the snuff,
And when she speaks! I'd sooner hear a raven
Croak at my door! she sits there, nose and knees
Smoak-dried and shrivell'd over a starved fire,
With that black cat beside her, whose great eyes
Shine like old Beelzebub's, and to be sure
It must be one of his imps! — aye, nail it hard.

I wish old Margery heard the hammer go!
She'd curse the music.

Here's the Curate coming,
He ought to rid the parish of such vermin;
In the old times they used to hunt them out
And hang them without mercy, but Lord bless us!
The world is grown so wicked!

Good day Farmer!
Nathaniel what art nailing to the threshold?

A horse-shoe Sir, 'tis good to keep off witchcraft,
And we're afraid of Margery.

Poor old woman!
What can you fear from her?

What can we fear?
Who lamed the Miller's boy? who rais'd the wind
That blew my old barn's roof down? who d'ye think
Rides my poor horse a'nights? who mocks the hounds?
But let me catch her at that trick again,
And I've a silver bullet ready for her,
One that shall lame her, double how she will.

What makes her sit there moping by herself,
With no soul near her but that great black cat?
And do but look at her!

Poor wretch! half blind
And crooked with her years, without a child
Or friend in her old age, 'tis hard indeed
To have her very miseries made her crimes!
I met her but last week in that hard frost
That made my young limbs ache, and when I ask'd
What brought her out in the snow the poor old woman
Told me that she was forced to crawl abroad
And pick the hedges, just to keep herself
From perishing with cold, because no neighbour
Had pity on her age; and then she cried,
And said the children pelted her with snow-balls,
And wish'd that she were dead.

I wish she was!
She has plagued the parish long enough!

Shame farmer!
Is that the charity your bible teaches?

My bible does not teach me to love witches.
I know what's charity; who pays his tithes
And poor-rates readier?

Who can better do it?
You've been a prudent and industrious man,
And God has blest your labour.

Why, thank God Sir,
I've had no reason to complain of fortune.

Complain! why you are wealthy. All the parish
Look up to you.

Perhaps Sir, I could tell
Guinea for guinea with the warmest of them.

You can afford a little to the poor,
And then what's better still, you have the heart
To give from your abundance.

God forbid
I should want charity!

Oh! 'tis a comfort
To think at last of riches well employ'd!
I have been by a death-bed, and know the worth
Of a good deed at that most awful hour
When riches profit not.

Farmer, I'm going
To visit Margery. She is sick I hear—
Old, poor, and sick! a miserable lot,
And death will be a blessing. You might send her
Some little matter, something comfortable,
That she may go down easier to the grave
And bless you when she dies.

What! is she going!
Well God forgive her then! if she has dealt
In the black art. I'll tell my dame of it.
Avd she shall send her something.

So I'll say;
And take my thanks for her's. [goes.]

That's a good man
That Curate, Nat, of ours, to go and visit
The poor in sickness; but he don't believe
In witchcraft, and that is not like a christian.

And so old Margery's dying!

But you know
She may recover; so drive t'other nail in!

[pp. 216-25]