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

208. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. April 1797] ⁠* 

ESTEBAN MANUEL DE VILLEGAS [1]  was born in the city of Nagera, in Old Castille, in the year 1595; the reigns of the IId and IIId Philip [2]  were generally favourable to literature; yet neither the claims of illustrious family, nor of distinguished abilities, procured patronage for Villegas, and his long life was spent in continual hopes, and continual disappointment. At the age of fourteen, he became a student at law, at the university of Salamanca. Villegas must have regretted, in his age, the employments of his youth: for those hours that should have been sacrificed to the civilians, were given to the Greek and Roman poets; nor could the title he acquired, of the Spanish Anacreon, [3]  atone for after years of fruitless expectation, embittered by the difficulties of a narrow fortune.

His “Delicias” were, as he himself tells us, in the first of them, written at fourteen, and corrected at twenty.

A los veinte limidas,
A los catorce escritas. [4] 

They form the second book of his Eroticas, or Amatory Poems, which he published at Nagera, in 1618. [5]  These poems are said to unite in themselves the sweetness of Anacreon, the simplicity of Theocritus, [6]  the ease of Horace, [7]  and the elegance of Catullus. [8]  In fine (says the editor of Parnaso Espanol), he has displayed whatever constitutes a great poet, rendering himself the first of his own nation, and equally the most celebrated of antiquity. [9] 

Something must be allowed for the prodigality of a Spaniard’s praise; something for the age and country in which Villegas wrote; and something for the errors of a work, “written at fourteen, and corrected at twenty.” The poems are trifling, like their subjects, playful and elegant. One, perhaps the best of the series, addressed to a stream, has lately been translated. [10]  The following is attempted in the Anacreontic metre of the original, varying, however, the uniformity of cadence, which would otherwise weary an English ear:

TO WINTER.

ENOUGH, enough, old Winter!
Thou workest to annoy us,
With cold, and rain, and tempest,
When snows have hid the country,
And rivers cease to flow.
The flocks and herds accuse thee,
And even the little ermine
Complains of thee, old Winter!
For thou to man art freezing,
And his white fur is warm.
The beasts they crouch in cover,
The birds are cold and hungry,
The birds are cold and silent,
Or, with a weak complaining,
They call thee hard and cruel.
But not to me, old Winter!
Thy tyranny extends;
For I have wine and music,
The cheerful hearth and song. [11] 

The reputation of these poems has been severely attacked, in an essay, prefixed to the posthumous poems of Don Joseph Iglerias de la Casa, printed at Salamanca, 1793. “The Delicias of Villegas (says the anonymous writer) are the first poems of their kind, which obtained celebrity in the Spanish language. [12]  Our author has likewise exercised himself in the same line of composition, and he has excelled his model in the beauty and selection of his images, and more particularly in the sweetness and nature of his sentiments. For, although Villegas may have possessed a feeling heart, he knew not how to develope it in his verses.

“You will be astonished to see me treat with so little respect, a poet of such high estimation. But the fame of this writer, like that of many others, is merely the fame of tradition: not founded upon his real merit, but upon the opinion of some person, who knew how to impose upon the mob of readers. This assertion may appear somewhat bold, if we consider when Don Vicente de los Rios published and panegyrized Villegas. [13]  Then, perhaps, his poems were a model of good taste, but in what a state was our literature then! What should be said of a poet, whose verses are full of ridiculous transpositions, low words and phrases, forced and obscure metaphors, ill-time allusions, and pedantic erudition, that are bald of imagery, and totally devoid of feeling? These faults mark every part of every work of Villegas; and notwithstanding the Greek* [14]  name in the title-page, you never hear in them the language of love. It avails not, my friend, to be learned in Greek and Latin, if good taste be wanting. Let us undeceive ourselves; Villegas would have been forgotten by this time, had it not been for the harmonious cadence of his verses; there indeed he is excellent.” [15] 

The censure of the essayist is too unqualified. Of all poems, such as are entitled Amatory, are most devoid of feeling. Petrarch and Hammond [16]  are distinguished by fantastic nonsense and whining dullness; and wherever Cupid is subpœnaed into a poem, his evidence is sufficient to prove that the poet was not in love. A bee mistakes the lips of Lydia for a rose. Lydia sees Cupid asleep, and steals his bow and arrows. — The poet adjures the stars to tell Lydia that her forehead is more polished than silver, and her teeth whiter than pearls. If an author abandons himself to write upon such subjects, you are not to expect human feelings.

Strange and uncouth metaphors are undoubtedly to be found in the poems of Villegas. He addresses a stream, “thou who runnest over sands of gold, with feet of silver.” — “Touch my breast (says he) if you doubt the power of Lydia’s eyes, you will find it turned to ashes.” He has hyperbolized the Spanish hyperbolical salutation, “may you live a thousand years!” and wishes that the young grandee, to whom the first of his Delicias is addressed, may enjoy more years than there are days in an age, drops of water in the ocean, and grains of land on the shore. “Thou art so great (says he) that thou canst only imitate thyself with thy own greatness.” Joshua Sylvester calls Du Bartas’ Weeks,

The noblest work
After itself’s condignity.  [17] 

So that “none but himself can be his parallel,” is not an unparalleled line; and when Aaron Hill defended it, [18]  he might have found precedents enough for nonsense. But absurdities, like these, are not abundant in Villegas; and it should be remembered, that these are selected from the productions of his youth.

Anacreon may be read with pleasure in the translation of the Spaniard who has been honoured with his name; nor will he, who peruses the version of Villegas, remember to its disadvantage the harmony of Grecian cadence. He has likewise introduced hexameters and Sapphics, with success, into his native language; and even the critic, who so severely attacks the Eroticas, calls his Sapphic ode to Zephyrus most beautiful (bellissima oda). [19]  A translation of this piece into English Sapphics, has been lately published in the same work* [20]  with his Lines to a Stream.

From Salamanca, Villegas returned to Nagera, his native place: where he lived with his mother, then a widow, and availed himself of leisure and retirement to follow his favourite studies, till his marriage. — His marriage appears to have been a fortunate one; the account he has left is interesting:

Hymen! [21]  ere yet, with chasten’d heart, I pass’d
Thy threshold, I hung up the idle lute:
For better offerings suit thy blessed shrine,
Oh, holy Power! I gather now no more
Garlands of gay and perishable flowers,
But in the summer-tide of life present
The summer fruits. Enough were thirty years
Of youth and folly. Even the mettl’d steed,
Obedient to the rein, will bend at last
His stately-arching neck. The blood grows cool,
Passions’ wild-tempests to a quiet calm
Subside; and from the witcheries of Vice
Her waken’d captive starts. Oh; holy Power!
Who but would bow the neck to thee, and court
The freedom of thy yoke? With thankful heart
I bless thee, Hymen, for that seraph form,
In whom thou gavest me another soul,
Doubling existence. Thou hast given to me
Truth, tenderness, and all the nameless joys
Of quiet life, making me live indeed!
Who but would bow the neck to thee, and court
The freedom of thy yoke? Oh, holy Power!
I have escap’d from Babylon, and bless
Thy saviour aid. [22] 

As these lines indicate, Villegas now bade adieu to poetry, and applied himself to such studies as were likely to be more esteemed, and better rewarded. Two folio volumes of classical criticism, entitled Variæ Philologiæ, yet remain in manuscript, to witness his learning and industry; and he began the more laborious task of commenting upon the Theodosian Code. [23]  But no exertion of genius, or of industry, could procure him such patronage as he deserved and wanted; and when, in his old age, experience had convinced him of the vanity of his hopes, he employed the latter days of life in translating the Consolations of Philosophy, fully participating, perhaps, the proud and melancholy feelings that comforted Boethius. [24] 

T. Y.


Notes

* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 3 (April 1797), 270–272 [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), 216. BACK

[1] Esteban Manuel de Villegas (1585–1669), Spanish lawyer and poet. BACK

[2] The Spanish kings, Philip II (1527–1598; reigned 1556–1598) and Philip III (1578–1621; reigned 1598–1621). BACK

[3] The Greek lyric poet Anacreon (c. 6th century BC). BACK

[4] Esteban Manuel de Villegas, ‘Mis dulces cantilenas’ (1618), lines 3–4. The passage translates as ‘Polished at twenty,/ And written at fourteen’. BACK

[5] Esteban Manuel de Villegas, Las Eroticas o Amatorias (1618). BACK

[6] Theocritus (c. 308–c. 240 BC). BACK

[7] Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BC). BACK

[8] Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC). BACK

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

[10] Southey’s translation of ‘A un arroyuelo’ (‘To a Stream’) had appeared in his Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol, 1797), pp. 376–377. BACK

[11] Esteban Manuel de Villegas, ‘Al Hibierno’ in Juan José Lopez de Sedano, El Parnaso Español, 9 vols (Madrid, 1768–1778), I pp. 63–64. The translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[12] José Inglerias de la Casa (1748–1791), Poésias Pośthumas, 2 vols (Salamanca, 1793), I, p. xii. The translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[13] Vicente de Los Rios (1736–1779), whose two-volume edition of Villegas was published in 1774. It included a life of Villegas. BACK

[14] Southey adds footnote: ‘Eroticas.’ BACK

[15] José Inglerias de la Casa, Poésias Pośthumas (Salamanca, 1793), I, p. xiii. The translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[16] Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374); and James Hammond (1710–1742; DNB), author of Love Elegies (1742). BACK

[17] The poet and translator Josuah [Joshua] Sylvester (1562/3–1618; DNB). His literary hero was the Gascon Huguenot poet Guillaume de Saluste, Sieur Du Bartas (1544–1590). Southey is quoting from Sylvester’s Divine Weekes and Workes (1621), ‘Corona dedicatoria’, lines 109–110. BACK

[18] The writer and entrepreneur Aaron Hill (1685–1750; DNB), defended the line ‘none but himself can be his parallel’ in a letter to Alexander Pope (1688–1744; DNB), published in the Works of the Late Aaron Hill, 4 vols (London, 1753), I, pp. 261–263. BACK

[19] José Inglerias de la Casa, Poésias Pośthumas (Salamanca, 1793), I, p. xiii. The translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[20] Southey adds a footnote: ‘Letters from Spain and Portugal, with some Account of Spanish and Portuguese Poetry, by Robert Southey.’ BACK

[21] Greek god of marriage. BACK

[22] The poem by Villegas is unidentified. The translation is probably by Southey and was published under the signature ‘T.Y.’ in the Annual Register (London, 1804), p. 224. BACK

[23] The Codex Theodosius, a compilation of the laws of the Roman Empire. BACK

[24] Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 475–525). Villegas’s translation of ‘Los Cincos Libros De La Consolacion de Severino Boecio’ was published as the second volume of Vicente de Los Rios, Las Eroticas, y Traduccion De Boecio, (1774). BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2009