180. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. October 1796]

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

180. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. October 1796] ⁠* 


I NOW proceed to perform the promise I made, of presenting the public with farther particulars relative to the poetry of Spain and Portugal.

Towards the close of the fifteenth century, was born Mosen Juan Boscan Almogavar, [1]  the reformer of Spanish poetry; and, in the year 1503, his more celebrated assistant and friend Garcilaso de la Vega. [2]  Boscan was tutor to the great duke of Alva: [3]  “the heroic virtues that adorned the mind of the pupil prove with what diligence and success the tutor performed his duty;” so says one of his biographers. [4]  Let not the reader detest the poet Boscan because he had the misfortune to educate the detestable duke of Alva! Alexander had listened to the lessons of Aristotle, [5]  and the son of Antoninus must have heard the precepts of his father; [6]  but no culture can render the night-shade innocent.

Before this period, the poetry of Spain was harsh and barbarous; some of their old ballads, indeed, possess that simplicity which is superior to all art, and which no art can bestow; there is, however, in the art of versification something which, though it may fail to charm us, will at least prevent us from being disgusted; how would the insipidity of Addison’s [7]  poems been received, had they been dressed in the rhymes of Dr. Donne? [8] 

Boscan himself tells us, in his dedication to the duchess de Soma, that it was by the advice of Andres Nabagero, the Venetian ambassador, that he introduced Italian metres and Italian taste into the Castilian poetry. “We were conversing together at Grenada (says he) upon literary subjects, and particularly upon the difference of languages, when he observed to me, that in the Castilian tongue we had never attempted sonnets, and other kinds of composition used by the best authors of Italy; and he not only said this to me, but urged me to set the example. A few days afterwards, I departed for my home, and musing upon many things during the long and solitary journey, frequently thought upon what Nabagero had advised: and thus I began to attempt this kind of verse. At first I found some difficulty, because it is very complex (muy artificioso) and has many peculiarities different from our own: afterwards, from the partiality we naturally feel towards our own productions, I thought that I had succeeded well, and gradually grew warm and eager in the pursuit. This, however, would not have been sufficient to stimulate me to proceed, had not Garcilaso encouraged me, whose judgment, not only in my opinion, but in that of the whole world, is esteemed as a certain rule.” [9] 

This innovation, like all other improvements, was not introduced without opposition. Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, [10]  the celebrated marquis of Santillana, had made use of the Italian metres many years before. Don Diego de Mendoza, [11]  of the same noble house, had the honour of co-operating with Boscan and Garcilaso in a more successful attempt; though such is the caprice of Fame, that he is better known in England as the author of Lazarillo de Tormes, [12]  than as the historian, the poet, and one of the reformers of his country’s literature: to the disgrace of mankind, whatever work is lively and loose, will certainly be popular. The name of Garcilaso has eclipsed that of his assistants, and he is to this day esteemed the best of the Spanish poets, yet the little volume of Garcilaso’s productions is more distinguished by melody of versification than sublimity of thought. The volume consists of 184 pages, of which 110 are taken up by three eclogues! [13]  In the present æra of taste, no poet possessed of common sense would ever commit a pastoral; and none but a Spanish or Portuguese poet would ever have extended one to upwards of seventeen hundred lines!

All persons of unvitiated tastes love the country: descriptions of rural scenery, and images drawn from rural life, never worry us; but a shepherd and a crook, and a pipe, is quite as unnatural as one of the cannibal giants of romance, and infinitely less agreeable as a companion by the fire-side. The Spanish Parnassus is very much infested by these gentry, and they are equally troublesome on the Portuguese side of the mountain. Yet, if the following defence of shepherds be not convincing, it is at least curious and amusing. It is prefixed to the Eclogues of Francisco Rodriguez Lobo. [14] 

“Nature has hidden in rough shells, at the bottom of the sea, those pearls to which man has affixed such value; she has hidden that gold with which our souls are fettered, in the bowels of the earth, amid barbarous nations, and in distant countries: she has guarded the sea with rocks, and sown it with dangers, to place boundaries to our desires, and lengthen the period of our lives: but Evil, to deprive us of our tranquillity, laid open these secrets, and hid from us the true knowledge where real tranquillity is to be found. Then did this malignant spirit disfigure the shepherds with coarse vile garments, and represent their life of contentment as a life of mean and despicable labour; and by these magical delusions were we taught to despise the only treasure which the earth affords to render the mind happy: but when this fascination is removed, and we see things clearly, how much more beautiful appear the various colours with which the fields are apparelled, and the trees, and the sun, and the horizon beautiful when he sets, than all the deceitful trappings of Vanity! How much more delightful to our ears is the song of innocent birds, than the sound of flattering tongues, that endeavour to entrap our reason! Is not the rock that hangs over the stream, in whose caverns the birds dwell, and under whose shade the fishes sport, more to be admired than the sumptuous and superb edifice, that cannot so well resist the force of the tempest, or the secret sap of time? Where can life pass more delightfully or more tranquilly than among the flocks and herds? How much more secure is the enjoyment of these than the hopes of the court, and the deceits of the city! And if we have so often sighed for that happy age of gold, it is for this advantage, exceeding all others, that men lived then like shepherds, and followed their flocks, and cultivated the earth: and this truth is clearly proved; for the first man whom God created held this office, and the title which God gave him, was that of lord of the animal world; and Abel, the first martyr, in whom the church began, and the other children of Adam, tended their flocks: so likewise did Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob with his beloved Rachel, and Esau; Joseph and his brethren were shepherds, as they confessed to Pharaoh. Moses and Zipporah, Saul and David, kings of Israel, and Mesa, king of Moab, had executed this honourable office; and king Cyrus had exercised it among the ancient Persians. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, with Faustulus, who educated them, kept sheep; and among those valiant Romans, the fame of whose exploits has echoed over the world, we read of many whose names discover their origin, such as the Vituli, the Vitellii, the Porcii, the Capri, the Tauri and the Bubulci. Many persons have risen to the highest dignities, from the pastoral state: Giges, king of Lydia; Sophy, king of the Turks; Primislaus, king of Bohemia; Tamerlane, emperor of the Scythians; Justin, emperor of the Romans; Viriatus, captain of the Portuguese; and Sixtus the first, the Roman pontiff: and, in truth, what is the life of a shepherd, but the similitude of empire? but a system of government, with moderation and mildness? For what can be more similar to the government of a kingdom than the management of a flock? To defend them from wild beasts, to secure them from robbers, to guide them to good pastures, cool shades, and clear waters; to threaten them with his voice, to chastise with the crook those who stray; to amuse them with the pipe and with the song, to cure them with herbs when they are sick; to be clothed with their wool, to feed upon their milk, and thus to pass peaceably through life? Among the vain deities whom the blinded Gentiles worshipped, Apollo, Mercury, Daphne, and Pan, and Proteus, and Paris, and Polyphemus, were shepherds; and the true God whom we serve, is frequently styled a shepherd, in the holy Scriptures; so ancient and so honourable is the pastoral life, which the avarice of men has now made despicable!

“Much knowledge is certainly necessary for a shepherd; an acquaintance with the nature of soils and pastures, the virtues of herbs, the changes of weather, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the effects of the sun, and the qualities of animals; and this life, though the most quiet, produces in its employments all things necessary for our subsistence: wool, milk, skins, the flesh of animals, herbs, grain, fruit. What life, then, can be more delightful than the pastoral life? or what prejudice can be greater than that which denies this truth?

“What style can be more conformable to reason, or less vitiated, than the simple style of the shepherd? and therefore is it that the ancient writers have delivered their precepts in the pastoral language, as being most pure and natural. Under this allegory, Solomon veiled the mysteries of our faith, in his Songs to his beloved; instructing us, by his lofty theme, and by a strain of poetry as sublime in itself, as it is humble in its similitude; which example alone would be sufficient, with the men of this age, to dignify pastoral productions. In this style the Greeks and Romans, and the Italians, the Spaniards, and our Portuguese, have written works, many in number, and rare in quality; marvellous works, to enumerate which would be another new undertaking! Therefore, curious reader, I present to you the manners and language of shepherds, as the true doctrine of wisdom. I do not give you gilded pills of poison, nor offer to you flowers that conceal a viper; instead of these you have pearls in the shell, and plain honesty instead of polished falsehood.” [15] 

So curiously has this ingenious Portuguese defended pastoral poetry! But though we may agree with him that the life he describes is the most natural and most honourable state of man, we shall be very far from acknowledging, that either his eclogues, or those of any other poet, fairly represent it.

Garcilaso de la Vega, in the most enormous of his eclogues, has introduced almost action enough for a drama. [16]  Albanio opens it, with a soliloquy of lamentations, and then he falls asleep. Salicio then enters, singing a translation of Horace’s favourite ode, “Beatus ille qui procul negotiis,” [17]  of which there are above twenty versions in the Spanish language. In the middle of it, he stops short, on seeing a man sleeping, dilates upon the excellence of sleep; and then, recognizing Albanio, informs the reader, that he knows him, that he was once very happy, and is now very miserable, but that he had not yet learned the cause. Albanio now talks in his sleep and Salicio interrupts and wakes him. He now requests him to relate his history, and Albanio tells a very long story of his being the intimate friend of a young female relation, with whom he used to hunt; how he one day told his love; she left him, and he is dying with despair. After they are gone out, Camille enters, and lies down by a fountain to take her siesta — her evening’s nap. Albanio finds her, and seizes her, but releases her on her solemn promise to remain and hear him, which she, as soon as released, breaks, and runs away, and Albanio runs mad. Salicio now enters, with Nemoroso: Nemoroso tells a long story about a magician, which is a panegyric upon the family of Alva; and the eclogue concludes with their resolution to get Albanio cured by this magician.

In this very ill-planned poem, Garcilaso has perpetuated his friendship for Boscan, and perhaps no lines in the poem can be perused with more pleasure than these, in which he bears testimony to the virtues of his friend:

“Then, hand in hand,
A youth approach’d, with Phoebus; in his face
The skilful eye might read benevolence
And wisdom; he was perfected in all
The lore and various arts of courtesy
That humanize mankind: the graceful port,
And the fair front of open manliness,
Discover’d Boscan; and that fire illumin’d
His generous face that animates his song,
With never-fading splendour there to shine. [18] 

Garcilaso has, in his second eclogue, introduced a Moorish metre, which has been seldom imitated, and, indeed, which did not deserve to be imitated at all: it is making the middle of the second line rhyme to the end of the first: the middle of the third to the end of the second, &c. Sir Philip Sidney, who was always trying experiments in versification, and making innovations instead of improvements, has left us some specimens of this:

Thy safety sure is wrapped in destruction,
For that construction thine own words do bear;
A man to fear a woman’s moodie eye
Makes reason lie a slave to servile sense,
A weak defence, where weakness is thy force;
So is remorce in folly dearly bought.  [19] 

This novelty, however, is to the eye and not to the ear; it is only rhyming regularly in short and irregular lines. A peculiarity similar to this, though infinitely superior, is much used by the Welsh poets; and the Welsh bard, Edward Williams, has given a very happy specimen in English: [20] 

Retir’d amongst our native hills,
And far from ills of greatness,
We live, delighted with our lot,
And trim our cot with neatness.

We wisdom seek and calm content,
They both frequent our dwelling;
From these a deathless comfort springs,
The joys of kings excelling.

In this the objection to the Moorish metre is removed, by the alternation of a regular rhyme.

Both Boscan and Garcilaso possessed more learning than taste, and more taste than genius. Their poems, particularly those of the latter, are full of imitations from the ancients; they seldom disgust the reader by bombast, but they never elevate his mind by the sublime. There is more prettiness in Boscan, more tenderness in Garcilaso. The following little piece of Boscan is not unhappy, and by the many imitations of it, it appears to have been a favourite conceit:


Since still my passion-pleading strains
Have fail’d her heart to move,
Show, Mirror! to that lovely maid,
The charms that make me love.
Reflect on her the thrilling beam
Of magic from her eye,
So, like Narcissus, she shall gaze,
And self-enamour’d die. [21] 

The sonnets of Garcilaso are the most interesting of his works: there are some as beautiful, but none superior, to the following:

As when the mother, weak in tenderness,
Hears her sick child with prayer and tears implore
Some seeming good, that makes his pain the less,
Yet, with short ease! the future evil more;
Even as her fondness yields to his vain will
She hastes to gratify her sickly son —
Anticipating then the coming ill,
Sadly she sits, and weeps what she has done.
Thus have I pamper’d my distemper’d mind;
And yielded thus to fancy’s wayward mood,
Poor dupe of Fancy! self-condemn’d to find
The future anguish in the present good. —
Thus do I waste a wretched life away,
And nightly weep the errors of the day! [22] 

Boscan paraphrased the Hero and Leander of Musæus, of course he injured it; for to paraphrase is to dilate, and to dilate, to weaken. [23]  He survived his friend, Garcilaso (who was killed in battle) but a few years: they both died young; but their celebrity will always last; for though Spain may hereafter produce better poets, the glory of reforming the national poetry must still remain.

T. Y.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (October 1796), 697–700 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘T.Y.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215. BACK

[1] Almogáver de Boscán (c. 1487–1542), Spanish poet who did much to introduce Italian verse forms into his country. BACK

[2] Garcilaso de la Vega (c. 1501–1536), author of sonnets, eclogues and odes. BACK

[3] Fernando Alvarez De Toledo, Duke of Alva (1508–1583), Spanish military commander in the Netherlands. BACK

[4] Juan José Lopez de Sedano (1729–1801), El Parnaso Español, 9 vols (1768–1778), VIII, p. xxxi. The translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[5] Alexander the Great (356–323 BC; reigned 336–323 BC) and his tutor Aristotle (384–322 BC). BACK

[6] Probably a reference to Lucius Verus (130–169; co-Emperor 160–169), adopted son and co-successor of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86–161; reigned 138–161). Verus was a noted military commander but led a dissipated life. BACK

[7] Joseph Addison (1672–1719; DNB). BACK

[8] John Donne (1572–1631; DNB). BACK

[9] Almogáver de Boscán, ‘Libro Secunda Delas Obras de Boscan ala Duquest de Soma’, in Las Obras de Boscan y Algunas de Garcilaso de la Vega Repartidas en Quarto Libros (Madrid, 1543), fols xx–xxi. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[10] The Spanish poet Inigo Lopez de Mendoza Marques de Santillana (1398–1456). BACK

[11] The Spanish poet Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1504–1575). BACK

[12] La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de Sus Fortunas y Adversidades (1554), an anonymously published novella, often credited as being the origin of the picaresque genre. BACK

[13] Several of Garcilaso de la Vega’s eclogues were printed in a collaborative publication with his fellow poet Almogáver de Boscán, Las Obras de Boscan y Algunas de Garcilaso de la Vega Repartidas en Quarto Libros (Madrid, 1543). BACK

[14] The Portuguese poet Francisco Rodriguez Lobo (c. 1550–1617). BACK

[15] ‘Discuros Sobre a Vida, e Estilo dos Pastores’, from Obras Politicas, e Pastoriz de Franscisco Rodrigues Lobo, 4 vols (Lisbon, 1774), IV, pp. 239–243. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[16] Garcilaso de la Vega’s ‘Ecloga Secunda’ was 1900 lines long. BACK

[17] Horace (65–8 BC), Epodes, 2, line 1. The Latin translates as ‘Happy the man who, far from the troubles of commerce’. BACK

[18] Garcilaso de la Vega, ‘Ecloga Secunda’, lines 1326-1335; the translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[19] Philip Sidney’s (1554–1586; DNB) eclogue ‘Dicus and Dorus’ in The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1590–1593), Book 2. BACK

[20] Edward Williams (1747–1826; DNB), Poems, Lyric and Pastoral, 2 vols (London, 1794), II, p. 158. BACK

[21] Almogáver de Boscán, ‘Á un Espejo’. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[22] Garcilaso de la Vega, ‘Como la tierne madre, quel doliente’. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[23] Almogáver de Boscán’s version of Hero and Leander is in Las Obras de Boscan y Algunas de Garcilaso de la Vega repartidas en quarto libros (Madrid, 1543), fols lxxiii–cxvii. Southey’s friend, Grosvenor Charles Bedford, published his own translation of Musaeus’s (fl. c. early 6th century) poem in 1797. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2009