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

188. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. December 1796] ⁠* 

IF LAVATER [1]  had contemplated the portrait of Lope de Vega, [2]  without knowing whom it represented, he would certainly have pronounced him an extraordinary man; but he would not have suspected him to have been a poet. The Spaniards have well characterised his genius by its monstruosidad, a word which must literally be rendered monstruosity: no other term could so well have delineated it. Lope de Vega is never sublime, seldom pathetic, and seldom natural; rarely above mediocrity in any of his writings, he has attained to celebrity by their number.

Purity of language and harmonious versification distinguish all the poems of this indefatigable Spaniard. Born and educated at Madrid, if he had beheld no stream but the Manzanares, and no country but the melancholy plains of Castille, we might have expected dullness; but the secretary and favourite of the duke of Alva [3]  must have accompanied his master to Villa Franca and to Oropesa; and the tranquil and majestic beauty of the one, and the wild sublimity of the other, would have awakened all the enthusiasm of poetry, if Lope de Vega had been indeed a poet.

When a school-boy, he bartered his verses with his school-fellows, for hymns and prints: when a young man, he wrote eclogues, and a comedy, in praise of the Grand Inquisitor; and a pastoral, in honour of the duke of Alva. From these symptoms, one who knew the human heart might have prophesied, that the young poet never would attain to excellence. The Dutch idea of bartering his verses could not have entered the mind of the enthusiast: the young enthusiast carefully conceals his feelings from observation, and he who is not an enthusiast must never expect to be a poet.

Is there who ne’er those mystic transports felt
Of solitude and melancholy born?
He who needs not woo the Muse?  [4] 

Were it not for the reverence which fashion has attached to their names, we should yawn over Virgil and Horace, when they prostitute poetry to panegyric. No great or good man ever encouraged a rhymer to bespatter him with praise; panegyric has, therefore, usually been employed on the weak and the wicked, on those whom we despise and detest; but, among the villains whose deeds pollute the page of history, the duke of Alva ranks in the first class. This man united in himself the bigotry of the priest, the duplicity of the politician, and the brutality of the soldier; and to this man did Lope de Vega write a pastoral! Arcadia and the duke of Alva! Madness never produced a more monstrous association!

The Arcadia of Lope de Vega is one of the innumerable imitations that swarmed in Spain, after George of Montemayor published his Diana. [5]  The age had been accustomed to extravagance by their books of chivalry; compared with which, the pastoral romance appeared natural. That this species of composition may possess very great beauty, had been sufficiently proved by Florian, in his alteration of the Galatea of Cervantes, [6]  and more particularly in his Estelle. I know of no work in the English language that can properly be classed under this head, though a very interesting one might be produced on the model of Florian, if the French frippery of sentiment, which infects even his writings, were avoided.

I never toiled through the Arcadia of Lope de Vega. After penetrating some thirty or forty pages into the little volume, I found that a few scattered conceits could not atone for its intolerable dullness. Great strength of imagination only can reconcile the reader to a total want to taste, but the imagination of this indefatigable Spaniard was not strong, and his taste may be judged of by a sentence relating to the heroine of his Arcadia: “the rays of Belisarda’s eyes shone upon the water like the reflection of the sun upon a looking-glass.” [7] 

Of his longer poems, I have never seen the Jerusalen Conquistada: [8]  I am, however, well enough acquainted with the style and powers of Lope de Vega, fully to credit Mr. Hayley, when he says, that it is, in every respect, infinitely inferior to the work of Tasso, [9]  which it attempted to rival. Of his “Beauty of Angelica,” a complete analysis, with specimens sufficiently copious, may soon be expected in a promised work upon Spain and Portugal. [10]  His Dragontea is very bad. [11]  It is reported, that Mr. Polwhele [12]  has likewise chosen Sir Francis Drake, as the subject of an epic poem. Sir Francis Drake was a good sailor; he makes a very respectable figure in the naval history of England; but he is but a sorry hero for the poet! A privateer is only a legalized pirate, which old Fuller calls the devil’s water rat, and the worst kind of sea vermin.  [13] 

Diogo de Sousa, in his celebrated satire called the Journey of Diogo Camacho to Parnassus,  [14]  has made a happy allusion to the rivalry of Lope de Vega with Tasso, and his lamentable inferiority. Camacho calls on the Spanish poet to beg a letter of introduction to Apollo. Lope replies:

My father for Arcadia is departing,
(Where I have been myself) and he shall write
Your introduction first. He journeys there
To seek some tidings of a certain lord,
By name* [15]  Anfriso: it is now some time
Since we have heard ought of him, and we doubt
Whether he lives or not. I answer’d him,
Senhor, I would not have you venture there,
Nor trust yourself in Palestine unmask’d
And heedless; for the very children say,
That, as Torquato did enrich those parts,
So you have ruin’d them! [16] 

His comedies are said to delineate characters well, and faithfully to represent the manners of the age he lived in. This commendation they could not have obtained without, in some degree, meriting it; and there is a liveliness in the lighter pieces of Lope de Vega, which shows him best qualified for such subjects. He himself excuses his total neglect of all dramatic rules, by alledging the taste of the age. “I have written better (says he); “but seeing what monstrous productions please the women and the mob, I have locked up all my precepts, and turned Plautus and Terence out of my library. Surely it is just that, as the public pay, the public should be pleased.” [17]  A childish and ridiculous defence, which deserves not a refutation!

The burlesque pieces of this universal author were published by him, under the name of the Licentiate Thome de Burguillos, perhaps, because he thought them little consonant to his ecclesiastical character; perhaps, because he was ashamed of a species of poetry so despicable. [18]  An Ode to a Flea was printed in one of those works to which he affixed his name, but never avowed himself to be the author of it. The editor of the Parnasso Espanol calls it a witty and ingenious composition; it displays, however, little ingenuity, and less wit. The poet tells the Flea where he goes, and what he feeds upon, and calls him a greater Turk than Amurath, because he spares nobody.  [19] 

The Spanish poets appear to have been little envious of each other’s reputation. In his Laurel de Apolo, Lope de Vega has liberally praised his contemporaries; and poems of the same nature have been composed by Gil Polo, Vicente Espinel, and the great Cervantes.  [20]  They satirized each other’s faults, but they honestly allowed each other’s merits; the abilities of Lope de Vega and of Gongora [21]  were acknowledged by those who most strongly exposed the carelessness of the one, and the affectation of the other.

I have read nearly two hundred of his sonnets. As might be expected, many of them contain parts that are beautiful; none of them are perfect as wholes. The following is a fair specimen:

To go, and yet to linger on the way:
To linger, and look back; and yet to go,
To hear a syren’s pleasant voice, and know
The winds of Fortune waft you far away;
To build gay fabrics in the baseless air;
Like Lucifer, to fall precipitate
From Heaven’s high bliss, even to a demon’s state,
To sink despairing; nor regret despair;
From Friendship’s voice affectionate to fly;
Wildly to rove, and talk in solitude;
To think each passing hour eternity;
All ill-expecting, not to hope for good;
And all the hell of jealousy to prove,
Is to be absent from the maid we love. [22] 

On the 25th of August 1635, died Lope de Vega, in the 73d year of his age; full of honours as of days. If not the best of poets, he was the most fortunate; the wealth he acquired rendered him happy in life, and the use he made of it cheered him in death. He died honoured by the great, celebrated by the learned, and regretted by the poor. His reputation still flourishes in his own country; and though the impartial judgment of foreigners cannot rank his productions above mediocrity, let it be remembered, that he never was excelled in industry as an author, or in liberality as a man.

The following sonnet may serve to show in what estimation he was held by his co-temporaries: it is by Antonio Barbosa Bacellar, [23]  written in Spanish — but a complete specimen of Portuguese taste:


LOPE! like some fair Syren in a sea
Of tears, thy Muse was heard! her wond’rous song
Could still the memory of the dead prolong,
Baffling oblivion by her harmony.
Even Death, astonish’d at that powerful strain,
Heard its enchanting music with alarm;
And trembled, lest his desolating arm
Should give no victims to oblivion’s reign.
He came, he conquer’d: — surely at some hour,
When o’er the eye-lids of thy mighty Muse
Sleep shed the poison of her poppy dews:
He had not conquer’d else that waking power,
Nor rest that bard of life, whose tuneful breath
Would surely then have given thee life — O Death! [24] 

T. Y.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (December 1796), 859–862 [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] Johann Kasparr Lavater (1741–1801), Swiss poet and physiognomist. BACK

[2] The prolific Spanish writer Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1562–1635). BACK

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

[4] James Beattie (1735–1803; DNB), The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius. A Poem. Book the First (1771), Book 1, stanza 58, lines 3-5. BACK

[5] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio’s Arcadia (1598) was influenced by Diana (1559), a pastoral romance by Jorge of Montemayor (c.1521–1561). BACK

[6] The French poet Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794), whose Galatie, an imitation of Cervantes, was published in 1783. BACK

[7] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Arcadia (Madrid, 1598), fol. vi. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[8] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Jerusalem Conquistada (1609). BACK

[9] William Hayley (1745–1820; DNB), An Essay on Epic Poetry (London, 1782), p. 206, compared Lope de Vega’s poem unfavourably to Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), Jerusalem Delivered (1580–1581). BACK

[10] An account of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio’s La Hermosura de Angelica (1602) appeared in Southey’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol, 1797), pp. 131–165. BACK

[11] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, La Dragontea (1598), dealt with the last voyage and death of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596; DNB). BACK

[12] Richard Polwhele (1760–1838; DNB). BACK

[13] A paraphrase of Thomas Fuller (1607/8–1661; DNB), The Holy State (Cambridge, 1642), p. 130. BACK

[14] The Spanish satirist Diogo de Sousa’s (also known as Diogo Camacho) (fl. c. 1650) Jornada às Cortes do Parnaso De Diogo Camacho, Em Que Ficou Laureado Por Apollo (1794). BACK

[15] Southey adds footnote: ‘One of the characters in Lope de Vega’s Arcadia.’ [Editorial note: Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, Arcadia (1598).] BACK

[16] Diogo de Sousa, Jornada às Cortes do Parnaso De Diogo Camacho, Em Que Ficou Laureado Por Apollo (Lisbon, 1794), p. 17. The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[17] In his Arte Nuevo de Hacer Comedias (1609), Lope Felix de Vega Carpio discussed his repudiation of the classical dramatic models as represented by Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254–184 BC) and Publius Terentius Afer (c. 190/180–159 BC). The English translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

[18] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio published the majority of his burlesques, including the mock-heroic ‘Gatomachia’ (1534), under the pseudonym Tomé de Burguillos. BACK

[19] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio’s ‘Ode to a Flea’ was included in Juan José Lopez de Sedano (1729–1801), El Parnaso Español, 9 vols (1768–1778), III, pp. 81–85. BACK

[20] Gaspar Gil Polo (c. 1530–1591); Vicente Gómez Martínez-Espinel (1550–1624); Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), author of the satirical romance Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605–1615). BACK

[21] Luis de Góngora (1561–1627). BACK

[22] Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, ‘Ir y quedarse y con quedar partirse’. The translation is probably Southey’s own and appeared under the signature ‘T.Y.’ in The Poetical Register, and Repository for Fugitive Poetry of 1802 (London, 1803), 303. BACK

[23] The Portuguese poet Antonio Barbosa Bacellar (1610–1663). BACK

[24] ‘A Morte de Lope de Vega Carpio’, in Mathias Pereira da Silva (fl. 1746). A Fenix Renascida, Ou Obras Poeticas Dos Melhores Engenhos Portuguezes, 5 vols (Lisbon, 1746), IV, p. 313. The translation is probably Southey’s own. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2009