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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

174. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 3 September 1796 ⁠* 

SIR,

YOUR correspondent, who has with such very superior merit translated the Leonora of BÜRGER, [1]  is mistaken when he calls that ballad wholly original. [2]  He has observed that many of the ballads of the gloomy German are translated with improvements from English originals.− Perhaps the story of Leonora was suggested by a ballad entitled, “The Suffolk Miracle, or a relation of a Young Man, who a month after his death appeared to his sweetheart, and carried her on horseback behind him for forty miles, in two hours, and was never seen after but in his grave.” It is in a collection of ballads, printed 1723. [3]  The collection extended to three volumes, each published separately, and is now very rare. [4]  In this tale the Spirit comes at midnight, and the maiden departs with him.

When she was got her love behind,
They pass’d as swift as any wind,
That in two hours, or little more
He brought her to her father’s door.

But as they did this great haste make,
He did complain his head did ache,
Her handkerchief she then took out,
And tyed the same his head about.

And unto him she thus did say,
“Thou art as cold as any clay!
“When we come home a fire we’ll have,”
But little dreamed he went to grave! [5] 

As Bürger is well versed in this branch of English poetry, it is not improbable that this rude but striking tale may have occasioned the sublime ballad of Leonora. However this may be, it certainly contradicts a remark that has not unaptly been made upon that Poem, that the difference between a German ghost and an English one is, that the German rides on horseback, and the English one goes on foot. [6] 

The imitation of the following lines from “William’s Ghost”, is, I think manifest. There are the lines of Leonora:

“And where is then thy house and home,
“And where thy bridal bed?”
“’Tis narrow, silent, chilly, dark,
“Far hence I rest my head.

“And is there any room for me,
“Wherein that I may creep?”
“There’s room enough for thee and me,
“Wherein that we may sleep.” [7] 

Compare them with these of the English ballad:

Now she has kilted her robes of green,
A piece below her knee,
And a the live-long winter night
The dead corpse followed she.

“Is there any room at your head, Willie?
“Or any at your feet?
“Or any room at your side, Willie,
“Wherein that I may creep?”

“There’s no room at my head, Margaret,
“There’s no room at my feet;
“There’s no room at my side, Margaret,
“My coffin is made so meet.” [8] 

Leonora is in parts equal to any composition I have ever read. The moral however is very exceptionable, and they who may abhor the vindictive justice of God, will think the punishment of Leonora exceeds her offence. The other ballad of the Parson’s Daughter [9]  is, in my opinion, superior. The abruptness of the beginning, and the recurrence to it at the end are unequalled.

B.

Sept. 3, 1796.


Notes

* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796), p. 1 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘B.’. New attribution to Southey; it repeats information found in his letter to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 31 July [–2 August] 1796 (Letter 168). BACK

[1] Gottfried August Bürger (1748–1794), who published ‘Lenore’ in 1773. BACK

[2] William Taylor, whose translation of ‘Lenora’ had been published anonymously in the Monthly Magazine, 1 (March 1796), 135–137. BACK

[3] ‘The Suffolk Miracle’, A Collection of Old Ballads. Corrected from the Best and Most Ancient Copies Extant. With Introductions Historical, Critical, or Humorous (London, 1723), pp. 266–270. BACK

[4] A second volume was added to A Collection of Old Ballads in 1723, and a third in 1725. BACK

[5] A Collection of Old Ballads. Corrected from the Best and Most Ancient Copies Extant. With Introductions Historical, Critical, or Humorous (London, 1723), p. 268. BACK

[6] Unidentified. BACK

[7] A quotation, with slight variations in spelling, of the translation published in the Monthly Magazine, 1 (March 1796), 136. BACK

[8] ‘Sweet William’s Ghost. A Scottish Ballad’; see Thomas Percy (1729–1811: DNB), Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vols (London, 1765), III, p. 130. Southey had quoted the two final stanzas in a letter to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 31 July [–2 August] 1796 (Letter 168). BACK

[9] Bürger’s ‘The Lass of Fair Wone’ was published in the Monthly Magazine, 1 (April 1796), 223–234. The translator was William Taylor. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2009