Eclogue, The Last of the Family.

Annual Anthology. Volume I. [Robert Southey, ed.]

Robert Southey

An uncollected "English Eclogue" by Robert Southey. James, a family servant, and Gregory, a tenant farmer, lament the passing of the young squire, and impending change generally: "This comes of your great schools | And college breeding. Plague upon his guardians | That would have made him wiser than his fathers!" Very little of the traditional pastoral elegy remains in this exercise in literary literalism, save concern for tradition and the "simplicity" of the Tory-minded speakers.

William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "The Last of the Family should, I think, have died in the army, and, as he does, of disease; why else the passion for hearing of Eustace and Sir Henry? Neither is it to Gregory, I think, that master Edward would have applied for the history of his remoter ancestry. If the latter part admits improvement, it may perhaps be by prolonging and circumstantializing the description of a funeral of family" 4 January 1799; in J. W. Robberds, Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor (1843) 1:242.

Monthly Magazine and American Review: "Another volume of poems has just made its appearance, entitled The Annual Anthology, of which Mr. Southey wrote a great part. It is a miscellaneous composition, though entirely poetical, and written by different authors. The other contributors are, Mr. Taylor, of Norwich, Mr. Charles Lloyd, Mrs. Opie, Mr. George Dyer, Mr. Joseph Cottle, Mr. Charles Lamb, the late Mr. Robert Lovel, Mr. A. S. Cottle, Mr. Humphrey Davy, and Dr. Beddoes. This volume is entirely original, with the exception of some pieces that made their appearance in the Morning Post; and, being composed by persons of different tastes, must, of course, possess considerable variety. Every reader, therefore, who has a relish for poetry, may expect to find something suited to his taste in the Annual Anthology; for it unquestionably contains many excellent compositions" 3 (October 1800) 296.

John Ferriar: "An affecting poem might be written on this subject, but Mr. S. has proved so very correct in his imitation of the gossiping of Farmer James and Farmer Gregory, that he has taken off much from the gravity as well as the interest of the piece" Monthly Review NS 31 (April 1800) 361.

Critical Review: "We insert an eclogue [Last of the Family] as a successful specimen of the author's elegant talent in using a familiar vehicle of sympathy and instruction, without falling into that prosaic flatness which is frequently the consequence of such attempts.... These are natural feelings, expressed in natural language; but there are some pieces in the collection, such as the poem on a goose, a pig, a filberd, &c. which have neither the humorous pomp of burlesque, nor the easy charm of nature: we suspect them to be the condescending relaxations of some geniuses from higher flights; but we advise the authors to be cautious in attempting 'to cultivate barrenness, and paint upon vacuity'" NS 28 (January 1800) 86, 89.

What Gregory! you are come I see to join us
On this sad business.

Aye, James, I am come,
But with a heavy heart, God knows it, man!
Where shall we meet the corpse?

Some hour from hence;
By noon, and near about the elms, I take it.
This is not as it should be, Gregory,
Old men to follow young ones to the grave!
This morning when I heard the bell strike out,
I thought that I had never heard it toll
So dismally before.

Well, well! my friend—
'Tis what we all must come to, soon or late.
But when a young man dies, in the prime of life,
One born so well, who might have blest us all
Many long years!—

And then the family
Extinguish'd in him, and the good old name
Only to be remember'd on a tomb-stone!
A name that has gone down from sire to son
So many generations! — many a time
Poor Master Edward, who is now a corpse,
When but a child, would come to me and lead me
To the great family tree, and beg of me
To tell him stories of his ancestors,
Of Eustace, he that went to the Holy Land
With Richard Lion-heart, and that Sir Henry
Who fought at Crecy in King Edward's wars;
And then his little eyes would kindle so
To hear of their brave deeds! I used to think
The bravest of them all would not out-do
My darling boy.

This comes of your great schools
And college breeding. Plague upon his guardians
That would have made him wiser than his fathers!

If his poor father, Gregory! had but lived,
Things would not have been so. He, poor good man,
Had little of book-learning, but there lived not
A kinder, nobler-hearted gentleman,
One better to his tenants. When he died
There was not a dry eye for miles around.
Gregory, I thought that I could never know
A sadder day than that: but what was that,
Compared with this day's sorrow?

I remember
Eight months ago when the young Squire began
To alter the old mansion, they destroy'd
The martins nests, that had stood undisturb'd
Under that roof, — aye! long before my memory.
I shook my head at seeing it, and thought
No good could follow.

Poor young man! I loved him
Like my own child. I loved the family!
Come Candlemas, and I have been their servant
For five and forty years. I lived with them
When his good father brought my Lady home,
And when the young Squire was born, it did me good
To hear the bells so merrily announce
An heir. This is indeed a heavy glow—
I feel it Gregory, heavier than the weight
Of threescore years. He was a noble lad,
I loved him dearly.

Every body loved him,
Such a fine, generous, open-hearted Youth!
When he came hom from school at holydays,
How I rejoiced to see him! he was sure
To come and ask of me what birds there were
About my fields; and when I found a covey,
There's not a testy Squire preserves his game
More charily, than I have kept them safe
For Master Edward. And he look'd so well
Upon a fine sharp morning after them,
His brown hair frosted, and his cheek so flush'd
With such a wholesome ruddiness! — ah James
But he was sadly changed when he came down
To keep his birth-day.

Changed! why Gregory,
'Twas like a play to me, when he stepp'd
Out of the carriage. He was grown so thin,
His cheek so delicate sallow, and his eyes
Had such a dim and rakish hollowness;
And when he came to shake me by the hand
And spoke as kindly to me as he used,
I hardly knew the voice.

It struck a damp
On all our merriment. 'Twas a noble Ox
That smoak'd before us, and the old October
Went merrily in overflowing cans;
But 'twas a skin-deep merriment. My heart
Seem'd as it took no share. And when we drank
His health, the thought came over me what cause
We had for wishing that, and spoilt the draught.
Poor gentleman! to think ten months ago
He came of age — and now!

I fear'd it then,
He look'd to me as one that was not long
For this world's business.

When the Doctor sent him
Abroad to try the air, it made me certain
That all was over. There's but little hope
Methinks that foreign parts can help a man
When his own mother-country will not do.
The last time he came down, these bells rung so
I thought they would have rock'd the old steeple down:
And now that dismal toll! I would have staid
Beyond its reach, but this was a last duty,
I am an old tenant of the family,
Born on the estate, and now that I've out-lived it,—
Why 'tis but right to see it to the grave.
Have you heard aught of the new Squire?

But little,
And that not well. But be he what he may
Matters not much to me. The love I bore
To the good family will not easily fix
Upon a stranger. What's on the opposite hill?
Is it not the funeral?

Aye! there are the black cloaks; and now I see
The white plumes on the hearse.

Between the trees;—
'Tis hid behind them now.

Aye! now we see it,
And there's the coaches following, we shall meet
About the bridge. Would that this day were over!
I wonder whose turn's next!

God above knows!
When youth is summon'd what must age expect!
God make us ready Gregory! when it comes.

[pp. 165-71]