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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2155. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 7 October 1812 ⁠* 

Keswick. Oct 7. 1812.

My dear Montgomery

You have here the second book of Pelayo, or as I must learn to call it, Roderick, the Last of the Goths. [1]  I have more pleasure in thus transcribing it for you than I shall have in throwing it before the world, for tho I cast my bread upon the waters in full assurance that it will be found after many days, it is with a feeling something like what I should have in setting acorns. In all these prospects the churchyard enters into the foreground. There is another thought connected with publication which tends as much to humiliation as it may seem to savour of pride – of the thousands who will read my poem, some for the pleasure of finding fault with it, but far very far more undoubtedly for the pleasure which it will give them, – how very few are there who will really be at competent to appreciate it, – & how frequently have I had occasion to remember the point of Yriarte’s fable ‘Bad is the censure of the wise – The blockheads praise is worse”. [2]  But in sending to you what has been produced with passion, & elaborated with thought, I know that you will recognize whatever is true to nature, & that thus I shall have my reward. – The figure of Spain may require a note to point out what a Spanish reader would instantly perceive, – the badge of the military orders, the castles & lions of Leon & Castille & Leon, & the sword of my Cid. [3] 

Your Peak Mountains [4]  make me wish repine that you did not come to me to find where you would have found subjects as much superior in beauty {loveliness} as in grandeur. You have managed a very difficult stanza with great skill. The last two last lines are both equal to one alexandrine, – therefore objectionable. You have been aware of this, & so managed your xxx accents that they very seldom read as one. Xxx xxxx alexandrine is so exquisitely harmonious. The poem is in own your true strain, – it has the passion, the melancholy & the religious ardour which are the elements of all your poetry. One of these elements, delightful as it is in such combination, I would banish from you, if I knew of any charm which like Tobits fumigation could chase away dark spirits. [5]  Oh that I could impart to you a portion of that animal chearfulness which I would not exchange for the richest earthly inheritance! For me, when those whom I love cause me no xxx anxiety, – the sky lark in a summer morning is not more joyous than I am, & if I had wings on my shoulders I should be up with him in the sunshine, carolling for pure joy.

But you must see how far how our mountains overstop the Derbyshire hills. – The leaves are now beginning to fall – come to me Montgomery as soon as they reappear, – in the sweetest season of the year, when opening flowers & lengthening days hold out to us every day the hope of a lovelier morrow. I am a bondsman from this time till the end of April, & must work get thro in the intermediate time more work than I like to think of; – thro it however, if no misfortune impede or prev prevent me, I shall get willingly & well, for I know not what it is to be weary of employment. Come to me as soon as my holydays begin. You will find none of the exhausting hurry of London, – but quiet, as well as congenial society, within doors, & without every thing that can elevate the imagination & soothe the heart.

I heard of you in London, from Miss Betham, who saw you at Mrs Montagues. Miss B. is one for whom I have a great regard, she has nervous manners which appear strange to those who do not know her, & are very painful to herself, – but she has great feeling & great goodness, – & is truly an excellent woman – with the heart of a child. –– Thank you for enquiring about the Missionary Reports. [6]  If there are only the two first numbers out of print I will send to London for the rest, & have a few blank leaves placed at the beginning in which to write an abstract of what is deficient, whenever I can meet with the beginning xxx borrow a perfect copy.

My next poem [7]  will have something to do with Missionaries, – xx it will relate to the time & country of Eliot, the apostle of the N American Indians, & the man who translated the bible into the most barbarous language that was ever yet reduced to grammatical rules. [8]  The chief personage is to be a Quaker, & the story will hinge upon the best principles of Quaker-philosophy, – if those words may be allowed to exist in combination. The object is to represent a man {acting} under the most trying circumstances, in that manner which he feels & believes to be right, regardless of consequences & in my story this principle of action which proves as instrumental at last to the preservation of the individual as it would be to the happiness of the whole community if ‘the Kingdom’ were “come.”

Do not let your poem [9]  languish longer. I who want spurring myself, would fain spur you on to a quicker progress. I advance in these things with a pace so slow & so unlike the ardour of former times, that I should suspect more change of temperament, & loss of activity than eight & thirty years ought to bring with them, if I did not find or fancy a solution in the quantity of prose labour which falls to my lot. Time has been when I have written 50, 80 or 100 lines before breakfast, – & I remember to have composed 1200 (many of them among the best I ever did produce) in one week. [10]  A riper judgement has had so px occasioned this change, – still time may have had some share in it. I do not now love autumn as well as spring, nor the setting sun like the life & beauty of the morning.

– God bless you.

Robert Southey.

2. [11] 

Twelve months they sojourn’d in their solitude,
And then beneath the burden of old age
Romano sunk. No brethren were there here
To spread the sackcloth, & with ashes strew
That penitential bed, & gather round
To sing his requiem, & with prayer & psalm
Assist him in his hour of agony.
On the bare earth he lay, which long had been
His only couch; beside him Roderick knelt,
Moistened from time to time his feverish lips.
Received a blessing with his latest breath,
Then closed his eyes, & by the nameless grave
Of the fore-tenant of that holy place
Consigned him, earth to earth.
Two graves are here,
And Roderick transverse at their feet began
To break the third. In all his intervals
Of prayer, save only when he searchd the woods
And fill’d the water-cruise, he labourd there.
And when the work was done, & he had laid
Himself at length within its narrow sides
And measured it, he shook his head to think
There was no other business now for him.
Poor wretch, thy bed is ready, he exclaim’d,
And would that night were come! – It was a task
All gloomy as it was, which had beguild
The sense of solitude, but now he felt
The burthen of the solitary hours:
The silence of that lonely hermitage
Lay on him like a spell, & at the voice
Of his own prayers, he started half aghast.
Then too as on Romano’s grave he sate
And pored upon his own, a natural thought
Arose within him, – well might he have spar’d
That useless toil, – the sepulchre would be
No hiding place for him, – no Christian hands
Were here who should compose his decent corpse
And cover it with earth: there he might drag
His wretched body at its passing hour
And there the sea-birds of her heritage
Would rob the worm, or peradventure seize
Ere death had done its work, their helpless prey.
Even now they did not fear him; when he walk’d
Beside them on the sand, regardlessly
They saw his coming, & their whirring wings
Upon the height had sometimes fannd his cheek,
As if being thus alone humanity
Had lost its rank, & the prerogative
Of man was done away.
For his lost crown
And sceptre, never had he felt a thought
Of pain. Repentance had no pangs to spare
For trifles such as these, – the loss of these
Was a cheap penalty, – that he had fallen
Down to the lowest depths of wretchedness,
His hope & consolation. – But to lose
His human station in the scale of things, –
To see brute nature scorn him, & renounce
Its homage to the human form divine, –
Had then almighty vengeance thus reveal’d
His punishment, & was he fallen indeed
Below fallen man, – below redemptions reach,
Made lower than the beasts, & like the beasts
To perish? – Such temptations troubled him
By day & in the visions of the night;
But even in sleep he struggled with the thought,
And waking with the effort of his prayers
The dream assail’d him still.
Oh for a voice
Of comfort, – for a word to bid him hope, –
A hand that from these billows of despair,
While yet he strives against the threatening sea
May reach, & snatch him ere he sink engulphd!
At length, as life when it hath lain long time
Opprest beneath some grievous malady,
Seems to rouse up with re-collected strength
And the sick man doth feel within himself
A second spring, so Rodericks better mind
Arose to save him. Lo! the western sky sun
Flames oer the broad Atlantic, on the verge
Of glowing Ocean rests, retiring then
Draws with it all its rays, & sudden night
Fills the whole cope of Heaven. The penitent
Knelt by Romano’s grave, & falling prone
Claspt with extended arms the funeral mould.
Father! he cried; Companion! only Friend
When all beside was lost! – thou too art gone.
And the poor sinner whom from utter death
Thy providential hand preserved, once more
Totters upon the gulph. I am too weak
For solitude, too vile a wretch to bear
This everlasting commune with myself;
The Tempter hath assail’d me; my own heart
Is leagued with him; Despair hath spread his nets
To take my soul, & memory like a Ghost
Haunts me & drives me to the toils. O Saint
While I was blest with thee, the hermitage
Was my sure haven. Look upon me, still,
For from thy heavenly mansion thou canst see
The suppliant, – look upon thy child in Christ!
Is there no other way for penitence!
I ask not martyrdom, – for what am I
That I should pray for triumphs, the fit meed
Of a long life of holy works like thine, –
Or how should I presumptuously aspire
To wear the heavenly crown resigned by thee
How nobly, for my sake? – O point me thou
Some humblest, painfullest, severest way, –
Some new austerity, unheard of yet
In Syrian fields of glory, or the sands
Of holiest Egypt. Let me bind my brow
With thorns, & barefoot seek Jerusalem.
Tracking the way with blood; there day by day
Inflict upon this sinful flesh the scourge,
Drink vinegar & gall, & for my bed
Hang with extended limbs upon the cross
A nightly crucifixion. Any thing
Of action, difficulty, bodily pain
Labour & outward suffering, – any thing
But stillness & this dreadful solitude.
Romano! Father! let me hear thy voice
In dreams. O sainted Soul! – or from the grave
Speak to thy penitent, – even from the grave
Thine were a voice of comfort.
Thus he cried,
Easing the pressure of his burthened heart
With passionate prayer, – thus pourd his spirit forth,
Till the long effort had exhausted him
His spirit fail’d, & laying in the grave
His weary head, as on a pillow, sleep
Fell on him. He had pray’d to hear a voice
Of consolation, & in dreams a voice
Of consolation came. Roderick! it said, –
Roderick, my poor unhappy sinful child,
Jesus have mercy on thee. – Not if Heaven
Had opened, & Romano visible
In his beatitude had breath’d that prayer,
Not if the Grave had spoken, had it pierced
So deeply in his soul, nor thrilld his heart
With such compunctious visitings, nor given
Withal so keen a joy. It was the voice
Which sung his fretful infancy to sleep
So patiently, which sooth’d his childish griefs,
Counsell’d with anguish & prophetic tears
His headstrong youth. And lo! his mother stood
Before him in the vision: in those weeds
Which never from the hour when to the grave
She followed her dear Lord Theodofred
Rusilla laid aside, but in her face
A sorrow that bespake a heavier load
At heart, & more unmitigated woe:
Yea a more poignant agony, than when
Witizas ministers & the red hot brass
Had done their work, & in her arms she held
Her eyeless husband; wiped away the sweat
Which still his tortures forced from every pore,
Cool’d his scorch’d lids with medicinable herbs,
And prayed the while for patience for herself
And him, & prayed for vengeance too, & found
Best comfort in her curses. In his dream
Groaning he knelt before her to beseech
Her blessing, & she rais’d her hands to lay
A benediction on him. But those hands
Were chain’d, & casting a wild look around,
With a wild voice she cried, Will no one break
These shameful fetters? – Pedro! Theudemir!
Athanagild! where are ye? – Rodericks arm
Is withered; Chiefs of Spain, but where are ye?
And thou Pelayo, thou our surest hope
Dost thou too sleep? – up – up – Pelayo! up!
Why tarriest thou, Deliverer? – But with that
She broke her bonds; & lo! her form was changed,
Radiant in arms she stood: a bloody Cross
Gleam’d on her breast-plate, in her shield display’d
A Lion seem’d to ramp, her helmed head
Rose like the Berecynthian Goddess crownd
With towers, & in her dreadful hand the sword
Red as a fire-brand blazed. Anon the tramp
Of horsemen, & the din of multitudes
Moving to mortal conflict, rung around,
The battle-song, the clang of swords & shield,
War-cries & tumult, strife & hate & rage,
Blasphemous prayers, confusion, agony,
Rout, & pursuit & death, & over all
The shout of Victory, Spain & Victory!
Roderick, as the strong vision mastered him,
Rush’d to the fight rejoicing; starting then
As his own effort burst the charm of sleep,
He found himself upon that lonely grave
In moonlight & in silence. But the dream
Work’d in him still, for still he felt his heart
Pant, & his withered arm was trembling still,
And still that voice was in his ears, which call’d
On Jesus for his sake.
Oh might he hear
That actual voice! & if Rusilla lived,
If shame & anguish for his crimes not yet
Had brought her to the grave, sure she would bless
Her penitent child, & pour into his heart
Prayers & forgiveness which like precious balm
Would heal the wounded soul. Nor to herself
Less precious or less healing, would the voice
That spake forgiveness flow: she wept her son
For ever lost, – cut off with all the weight
Of unrepented sin upon his head, –
Sin which had weigh’d a nation down: what joy
To know that righteous Heaven had in its wrath
Remembered mercy, & she yet might meet
The child whom she had borne, redeemd, in bliss.
The sudden impulse of such thoughts confirmd
His unacknowledged purpose which till now
Vainly had sought its end. He girt his loins,
Laid blessed Mary’s image in a cleft
Of the rock, where sheltered from the elements
It might abide till happier days came on,
From all defilement safe; – pourd his last prayers
Upon Romano’s grave, & kissd the earth
That covered his remains, & wept as if
At long leave-taking; – then began his way. [12] 

__________________


Notes

* Address: To/ Mr James Montgomery/ Sheffield
Stamped: [partial] KESWICK
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 19
Previously published: John Holland and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols (London, 1854–1856), II, pp. 362–364 [in part]. BACK

[1] Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[2] Tomas de Iriarte y Oropesa (1750–1791), ‘El Burro Flautista’, Fabulas Literarias (Madrid, 1782), pp. 19–20. Southey had published his own translation, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol, 1797), pp. 50–51. BACK

[3] Possibly the book that Southey had transcribed for Montgomery was illustrated with a ‘figure of Spain’, including a depiction of the sword of the legendary hero Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (1043–1099). He was the central figure in Southey’s translation, The Chronicle of the Cid (1808). BACK

[4] Montgomery’s ‘The Peak Mountains’, ‘written at Buxton, in August, 1812’. It was included in Montgomery’s The World before the Flood (London, 1813), pp. 203–212. BACK

[5] In the apocryphal Book of Tobit, 6: 16–17, Tobit was advised by an angel to use smoke from the burnt heart and liver of a dead fish to drive away demons. BACK

[6] Southey had asked Montgomery to purchase, if possible, ‘the two first old volumes’ of the Periodical Accounts of Moravian missionary activity, published quarterly from 1790; see Southey to James Montgomery, 26 March 1812, Letter 2066. BACK

[7] ‘Oliver Newman’, unfinished at Southey’s death. BACK

[8] The minister and missionary John Eliot (1604–1690; DNB), famed for his four decades of missionary work as the ‘Apostle to the Indians’ of eastern Massachusetts. His labours included translating Christian texts into the Algonquian language of the region. BACK

[9] Probably Montgomery’s The World Before the Flood (1813); see Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 2 January 1812 (Letter 2011) and 26 March 1812 (Letter 2066). BACK

[10] When Southey was writing Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[11] The remainder of the letter is a version of the second book of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[12] From all defilement … his way: written at top of fol. 1 r. BACK

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August 2013