A well-placed allusion to the Calidore and Pastorella episode in the sixth book of the Faerie Queene frames a tale of the loss of innocence — which, in the broader context, may represent the abandonment of pastoral poetry. The ruined cottage in this last eclogue stands opposite the improvements made at the mansion in the opening poem of the sequence, as nature dismally triumphs over art. Southey's melancholy is not un-Spenserian — the biographical thread in the concluding eclogue may recall "December."
Robert Southey: "A ruined cottage. Its story not to be told in dialogue. A mother and her daughter once dwelling there. The girl is a street-walker now — the mother dying at the workhouse" "Subjects for Idylls," Common-Place Book (1849-51) 4:95.
Charles Lamb to Robert Southey: "I thank you for the Eclogue; it pleases me mightily, being so full of picture-work and circumstances. I find no fault in it, unless perhaps that Joanna's ruin is a catastrophe too trite: and this is not the first or second time you have clothed your indignation in verse, in a tale of ruined innocence. The old lady, spinning in the sun, I hope would not disdain to claim some kindred with old Margaret. I could almost wish you to vary some circumstance in the conclusion. A gentleman seducer has so often been described in prose and verse; what if you had accomplished Joanna's ruin by the clumsy arts and rustic gifts of some country fellow?" 29 October 1798; in Letters, ed. Thomas Noon Talfourd (1837) 108-09.
William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "The Ruined Cottage is adapted to endure. If I understand it right, it is not in dialogue, but is a tale told, on a walk, by a young man to his friend. In this case the break, 'One only care | Hung on her aged spirits,' to — 'part from her dear girl,' is nearly unintelligible; for the 'she' of the preceding paragraph is Joanna, and there is no interruption, no return to the present to account for the transition. The descriptive parts of this idyll are capital — are unsurpassable. There is an idyll by Klopstock, of which I have only seen the reviewal, in which he describes himself, Gleim, and some other German poet, as carrying their half-dozen bottles of hock into an arbour, smoking and drinking there till they were very merry, then stripping and bathing in a brook hard by, and reeling homeward by moonlight. I should not think the English idyllist wise, who made himself a character in such a scene; but the idea of such a frolic comes within the natural limits of the eclogue; and the singing of a good song or two during the discourse is a resource of variegation and often recurred to with success by Voss and his followers. Do you recollect Gay's Friday, or the Dirge? It has the fault of being witty, but has also a great share of truly bucolic merit" 4 January 1799; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor (1843) 1:242-43.
Nathan Drake: "Since the first edition of these essays, Mr. Southey has published six English Eclogues; these are avowedly written upon a plan similar to that which I have taken much pains to recommend in this sketch ["On Pastorals"]. In some of these pieces I think he has succeeded well. I would particularly distinguish for their simplicity and beauty the 'Old Mansion House,' 'The Witch,' and 'The Ruined Cottage.' The 'Grandmother's Tale' appears to me to have too much of the horrid in it for this species of poetry" Literary Hours (1800) 1:328n.
Aye Charles! I knew that this would fix thine eye,
This woodbine wreathing round the broken porch,
Its leaves just withering, yet one autumn flower
Still fresh and fragrant; and yon holly-hock
That thro' the creeping weeds and nettles tall
Peers taller, and uplifts its column'd stem
Bright with the broad rose-blossoms. I have seen
Many a fallen convent reverend in decay,
And many a time have trod the castle courts
And grass-green halls, yet never did they strike
Home to the heart such melancholy thoughts
As this poor cottage. Look, its little hatch
Fleeced with that grey and wintry moss; the roof
Part mouldered in, the rest o'ergrown with weeds,
House-leek and long thin grass and greener moss;
So Nature wars with all the works of man,
And, like himself, reduces back to earth
His perishable piles.
I led thee here
Charles, not without design; for this hath been
My favourite walk even since I was a boy;
And I remember Charles, this ruin here,
The neatest comfortable dwelling place!
That when I read in those dear books that first
Woke in my heart the love of poesy,
How with the villagers Erminia dwelt,
And Calidore for a fair shepherdess
Forgot his quest to learn the shepherd's lore;
My fancy drew from this the little hut
Where that poor princess wept her hopeless love,
Or where the gentle Calidore at eve
Led Pastorella home. There was not then
A weed where all these nettles overtop
The garden wall; but sweet-briar, scenting sweet
The morning air, rosemary and marjoram,
All wholesome herbs; and then, that woodbine wreath'd
So lavishly around the pillared porch
Its fragrant flowers, that when I past this way,
After a truant absence hastening home,
I could not chuse but pass with slacken'd speed
By that delightful fragrance. Sadly changed
Is this poor cottage! and its dwellers, Charles!—
Theirs is a simple melancholy tale,
There's scarce a village but can fellow it,
And yet methinks it will not weary thee,
And should not be untold.
A widow woman
Dwelt with her daughter here; just above want,
She lived on some small pittance that sufficed,
In better times, the needful calls of life,
Not without comfort. I remember her
Sitting at evening in that open door way
And spinning in the sun; methinks I see her
Raising her eyes and dark-rimm'd spectacles
To see the passer by, yet ceasing not
To twirl her lengthening thread. Or in the garden
On some dry summer evening, walking round
To view her flowers, and pointing, as she lean'd
Upon the ivory handle of her stick,
To some carnation whose o'erheavy head
Needed support, while with the watering-pot
Joanna followed, and refresh'd and trimm'd
The drooping plant; Joanna, her dear child,
As lovely and as happy then as youth
And innocence could make her.
Charles! It seems
As tho' I were a boy again, and all
The mediate years with their vicissitudes
A half-forgotten dream. I see the Maid
So comely in her Sunday dress! her hair,
Her bright brown hair, wreath'd in contracting curls,
And then her cheek! it was a red and white
That made the delicate hues of art look loathsome.
The countrymen who on their way to church
Were leaning o'er the bridge, loitering to hear
The bell's last summons, and in idleness
Watching the stream below, would all look up
When she pass'd by. And her old Mother, Charles!
When I have heard some erring infidel
Speak of our faith as of a gloomy creed,
Inspiring fear and boding wretchedness,
Her figure has recurr'd; for she did love
The sabbath-day, and many a time has cross'd
These fields in rain and thro' the winter snows,
When I, a graceless boy, wishing myself
By the fire-side, have wondered why she came
Who might have sate at home.
One only care
Hung on her aged spirit. For herself,
Her path was plain before her, and the close
Of her long journey near. But then her child
Soon to be left alone in this bad world,—
That was a thought that many a winter night
Had kept her sleepless: and when prudent love
In something better than a servant's state
Had placed her well at last, it was a pang
Like parting life to part with her dear girl.
One summer, Charles, when at the holydays
Return'd from school, I visited again
My old accustomed walks, and found in them
A joy almost like meeting an old friend,
I saw the cottage empty, and the weeds
Already crowding the neglected flowers.
Joanna by a villain's wiles seduced
Had played the wanton, and that blow had reach'd
Her mother's heart. She did not suffer long,
Her age was feeble, and the heavy blow
Brought her grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.
I pass this ruin'd dwelling oftentimes
And think of other days. It wakes in me
A transient sadness, but the feelings Charles
That ever with these recollections rise,
I trust in God they will not pass away.