Dubious though the honour may be, if anybody dominated the anglophone epic poetry scene across the Romantic period it was Robert Southey. For forty years he was at work on one or another extended verse narrative, with topics that represented, on four continents, cultures from medieval Christendom, Islam, Hindustan, and the indigenous New World. Between the two quite different versions of Joan of Arc that he published in 1796 and 1837 appeared Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Madoc (1805), The Curse of Kehama (1810), Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), and A Tale of Paraguay (1825). Southey’s chosen themes of contest and conquest threw into high relief the profile of each culture he seized on, as in a different register did his characteristically bookish and condescending notes. Enlightened skepticism about alien systems of belief, joined to antinomian indifference to the internal logic of social patterns, disposed Southey’s epics to forms of causal overdrive that impoverish their narrative interest, even as they fulfill a whole set of now widely discredited clichés about Romantic alienation, transcendence, unstoppable will and insatiable desire. To Southey’s known importance for his Laker contemporaries, and his impact on Byron and Shelley in the next generation, may be added an extensive legacy to Victorian verse and prose narrative art: an influence that is the stranger given the extremity of his example. Action after action in Southey’s epic poems illustrates the incompatibility with heroic virtue of any course of action – i. e., any plot – that does not result in personal, national, or (at the imaginative bedrock these slighter levels imply) cosmic catastrophe.
Once at Holland House I met Southey; he is a person of very epic appearance, and has a fine head—as far as the outside goes.—Lord Byron (1813)
Eclipsed in literary history by contemporaries of genius, Robert Southey was nevertheless a writer of appreciable talent—and of enormous ambition. The unhappy disparity between these two attributes goes far towards explaining both the quality of his work and its quantity. It also highlights a sector of Southey’s oeuvre in which quantity as such possesses a qualitative force and to which this essay directs attention: his nearly unparalleled devotion to the genre of epic poetry. To take high aim at epic and miss was, in Southey’s generation especially, to keep some pretty distinguished company. But to do so repeatedly and without apology was to summon wonder, then provoke scorn, and at last call down ridicule. It is the ridiculous Southey who chiefly survives today, as laureate dunce and turncoat, thanks to Byron’s withering satire in the “Dedication” to Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment.
This state of affairs neither an essay like mine nor indeed a dedicated issue of Romanticism on the Net can do much about. It should be said, however, that when Southey’s offending epics are measured against the broad, often appalling run of contemporary work in the genre, they exhibit a staying power and a competence of means to ends that were far from common in his time and that deserve better esteem in ours. Southey’s performance in several epic modes across four decades more than suffices to distinguish him from the tertiary fry who stocked the Romantic period with shoals of heroics, from James Ogden (The Revolution, 1790) and Richard Cumberland (Calvary, 1792) to Edwin Atherstone (The Fall of Nineveh, 1828) and Robert Montgomery (Messiah, 1832). If Southey had not been comparatively good, he would never have drawn out Byron’s best in those satirical volleys that were undertaken, at bottom, in order to reprehend not the want of talent but its wastage. Southey made an especially choice foil for Byron’s epic mockery because the elder Romantic had committed himself so fully to epic in younger years, and because by 1815 the arc of his career in the genre so plainly showed him bending an initially radical and persistently experimental spirit to the service of established power.
It behooves us to remember that it took some nerve to compose at eighteen, in the year 1793, an English epic that glorified Joan of Arc and the French resistance she marshalled against invaders from England. It took even more to see the poem through the press in 1796 when the aftermath of the Paris Terror had induced Britain to dig in against France, militarily and domestically, for what would turn out to be two embattled decades. While an extensively revised second edition of 1798 mollified the original with stylistic blandishments and an infusion of neutral antiquarian notes, underneath it all the political impudence at the core of Southey’s conception survived intact. In 1837 the old laureate, not content to apologize for Joan of Arc as an unusually lengthy youthful indiscretion, set about reforming it altogether, currying its diction, tone, and plot, and producing what was in effect a Tory complement to Carlyle’s radical prose epic The French Revolution, which came out during the same inaugurally Victorian coronation year. Yet the censurable version Southey published at twenty-one escaped both censorship and, for the most part, censure. Its generally favourable reception sufficed in fact to speed him on a career that would compass no fewer than four additional ventures in the epic kind—Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Madoc (1805), The Curse of Kehama (1810), and Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814)—before he returned to make Joan of Arc safe for posterity.
If the first Joan enjoyed a charmed life in a hostile world, in this it resembled its heroine. Indeed, it resembled all Southey’s typical protagonists. The immaculate chastity of purpose that characterizes a Southey hero (and that captivated his sometime disciple Shelley and his lifelong fan Cardinal Newman) must be grasped in relation to the seemingly congenital disconnect in the poet’s mind between episodic series and epic meaning. As readers have observed since Coleridge (who, having written part of book 2 of Joan, knew what he was talking about), Southey’s diegetic propulsion is seldom distracted by the interests of pattern, whereby foreshadowing and recollection fold a story line on itself, for example, or structural parallels reinforce or complicate a theme. For reasons partly involved with the exceptionally spare variant of Enlightenment deism that ruled his youth, Southey lacked the storyteller’s birthright faith in the magnetism of plot. Eventually, as the close of this essay will argue, he contrived something like such a faith and professed it without awkwardness, but he never did shed the self-consciousness of a poet going through the motions of narrative.
Fascinated though Southey was by myth and national legend, his remained the abstracted fascination of a student who was content to know that people believed in certain empowered tales—and that peoples did the world over—but who was not about to join them. One obvious result of this detachment was Southey’s deliberate exploitation, in successive epics, of belief systems native to Arabia, Mesoamerica, India, and, albeit more gingerly, Catholic Europe. A subtler result at work within these vicarious national epics was a narrative infidelity sundering sequence from consequence: a deeply ingrained scepticism about the self-evidence of proximate causality made Southey the most sheerly linear of major nineteenth-century epoists. His plotting would have degenerated to chronicling had he not run through each epic an all-purpose ethical drive shaft to which every event in the narrative sequence is geared. Each incident in a Southey epic is connected to a perspicuous ultimate cause whose advancement is identical with virtue and whose hindrance is the sole business of the wicked.
In this regard it is interesting to compare Southey with his one real 1790s rival in epic verve and stamina, William Blake. Blake too devoted the decade to tinkering with Calliope and reinventing a genre that had, as both rising poets believed, slumbered in Britain since Milton’s day. But these two most committed epoists of the first Romantic generation, each dubious about the cogency of cultural master narratives, took the revival of epic in opposite directions. Blake’s workshop turned out a series of epyllia, short trial epics that cut, shuffled, and redealt the elements of the genre in varieties of self-subverting narrative. Southey in contrast, though with an equivalent brashness, set about hatching plots of the largest kind he could imagine. Where Blake, embarrassingly rich in the peripheral vision of collateral meanings, spent the decade breaking narrative up into its components and out into its options, Southey’s lesser but expedient gift was tunnel vision. His fifteen-years gestation of Madoc—the epic project for which he himself cherished the most regard—was interrupted but finally assisted by the relatively short work he found he could make of both Joan and Thalaba, each finished in a matter of months once he had compensated for the problem of inconsequence by hitching the narrative to the through-line of an indomitable, otherworldly will.
While Thalaba is the more remarkable performance, Joan is the more instructive in its emergence from the conventions of epic. Southey demonstrated his conversancy with the tradition in the rather cocky 1796 preface he wrote and also in the poem itself, which sports invocations, allegorical machinery, prophetic visions, grand consults, battles, heroic similes and didactic asides. All these conventions are rendered with an ejaculatory elevation calculated to fill William Hayley’s prescription, a decade earlier, that epic in an Age of Feeling should be warm as well as lofty. To this end Southey chose a protagonist whose femininity opened the poem to the softer emotions and who entered on her sterner epic duties as more a catalyst than a reagent. Joan’s statecraft is in essence a summons, the sharing of an infectious conviction, and her soldiership on the battlefield conducts a physical demonstration, by the breastplate of faith and sword of righteousness, that moral force is invincible.
What is most remarkable about Joan of Arc, and most characteristic of its poet, is a failure to convert such moral force into consequential narrative design. Southey proffers his epic conventions as credentials—again the parallel with his heroine before the prince at Orleans is striking—but he takes little interest in how they might be integrated into a compelling narrative argument. His major set piece is the ninth and penultimate book, where the story defers to the “Vision of the Maid,” in which Joan dreams the meaning of her poem. Ever since the prophecies of the Odyssey and Aeneid, epic shifts of register like this one have made their otherworldly disclosures feed back into the main narrative; even a native visionary like Southey’s favourite Spenser, when pausing to dilate on a bower or pageant, makes that dilation tell on the narrative in complex ways. But book 9 of Joan is a jumble of allegorical cameos—Despair and Expectation appear, but so does Henry of England, the whole being chaperoned by the complaisant figure of Joan’s just-dead boyfriend Theodore—which eschews connection either to the foregoing plot (book 10 will resume that without a hitch) or to what the generic tradition would particularly solicit at such a juncture: the historical pertinence binding this plot to the time of the poet and his readers. This defection could hardly be more deliberate: when at one point Theodore expressly offers Joan an epic chance to stake a claim on the future and “read the book of Fate” (9.785), she declines point-blank, and he praises her for it, departing into yet another allegorical display of the timeless choices leading to social bliss or dole. Not for nothing did a scrupulous prefatory acknowledgment of Coleridge’s allegorical contribution to book 2 single out as Southey’s own the exclusively moral allegories.
Joan’s choice not to know the story in book 9 is the same choice Southey makes throughout the poem. Time and again he bypasses opportunities to amplify the significance of an episode, even where these opportunities stare us in the face. Book 4 takes Joan to “St. Catherine’s sacred fane” (4.54), where the martyr’s gruesome torture as depicted in an altar piece offers a standing invitation to forecast the immolation awaiting Joan herself, an event that lies beyond the scope of Southey’s ten books but that every reader’s knowledge linked inescapably to his theme. And yet “Her eye averting from the storied woe, / The delegated damsel knelt” (4.116-17): the invitation seems turned down on purpose, not just by Joan but by her poet. When a later heroic simile envisions another altar, this one flaming in Mexico with human sacrifice (6.95-113) (a refugee, perhaps, from the Aztec scenery contemplated for Madoc), the poet again does nothing to activate its potential for a narrative foreshadowing of Joan’s “storied woe.” Joan herself, meanwhile, does foresee her end—more than once “on her memory flash’d the flaming pile” (4.373)—but Southey carefully restricts her knowledge to the inward eye that is the bliss of solitude. He cloisters the passion of martyrdom away from action in the world and sequesters meaning in spots of time, oases of consciousness.
The effect of this division of epic labour is a curious moral neutrality within the action itself—curious in what is undisguisedly the work of a 1790s leftist crusader, yet instrumental no doubt in winning it a favourable reception at a hard time. The English knights come off as political opponents to a France with which we are meant to sympathize. But they do not come off as villains: they do nothing especially wrong because deeds themselves here are morally indifferent. The abstraction of the poem’s moral sphere from its field of action left morality available for appropriation in ways that might reverse the spin ostensibly imparted by the plot. Joan’s medieval French nationalism had little to do with her independently inspired virtue, which thus became internationally fungible for imaginative use by contemporary British nationalists girding for a new invasion that threatened in the 1790s to wash back across the Channel in the other direction.
In Joan of Arc Southey found his way to a cloven epic form that at one and the same time glowed with ethical fervour and had nothing to prove. The poem’s flow works loose almost at once from the concatenation of incident, to be captured instead in a moral reserve fund that, while it supports the story as a whole—Joan the “delegated Maid” must mobilize France by inspiration alone—and remains available at need to explain this change of heart or that feat of arms, nevertheless has no ingredient force in the story’s unfolding probability. The liability that such an inconsequent form brought with it has been permanently established by literary history’s verdict against Southey’s epics. Yet in Southey’s day it also brought manifest advantages. Political neutrality was a prudent posture for a rising writer at an unsettled time, and it bore moreover at least a superficial resemblance to that nonpartisan generosity with which, it was universally agreed, The Iliad surveyed Trojan and Greek alike. The Homeric single combat between the disenchanted Frenchman Conrade and the disappointed Englishman Talbot in Southey’s book 10 not only is fought without national animus but also is narrated that way.
Even more important for the career ahead of Southey was the attractive, if over the long haul fatal, epic facility that the Joan of Arc model promised him—and, through him, a brigade of imitators in decades to come. Where there was a superintendent will, there was a way to transform any reasonably sequential chronicle of nations into the stuff of epic: the narrative equivalent of providential oversight and direction, typically transmitted through a delegated hero, might make any serial records, and a fortiori biblical ones, eligible for epic honours. Poets had but to do their homework and hitch their narrative wagon to a star. Together with young nineties poets of greater gifts like Blake and Walter Savage Landor, Southey was assaying epic by counterpoising plots against meanings, diegetic against visionary modes. Admittedly the allegorical machinery to which he first turned his hand proved junk, a deadweight drag on the motor of narrative; but he had the good sense to see this and throw it out, detaching “The Vision of the Maid of Orleans” for publication as the entirely separable poem it was, and omitting it entirely from the second and subsequent editions. But even as Joan of Arc showed up Southey’s failure to integrate larger, allegory-worthy meanings into a narrative structure, it showed him the way to implant meaning in a superhero who could become, above and beyond plot exigencies, the imaginative equivalent of an allegory. Southey’s engineering feat of the 1790s was to transform the lightning rod of the early Romantic sublime into a power source that drove plots, not from within by inherent probability, but from above by supernatural prompting. This prototype as Southey developed it for the nineteenth century freed the epic poet to plunder the fables of the globe, but always at the cost of enslaving the epic protagonist to a robotic program of heroic virtue.
It was arguably Landor’s example in the prepossessing epic torso Gebir (1798) that broke the still neoclassic mold of Joan and inspired Southey to a wilder experiment. Among the first to register Gebir’s crisp-cut epic presentation, Southey gave the poem an adoring review in 1799 and, to judge from the reform of his own epic manners, evidently took Landor’s generic point about emancipating epic from ancestor-worship—a plot theme of Gebir that was also, in effect, a declaration of generic independence against neoclassicism. Southey’s masterpiece-in-prospect Madoc began shedding the poetical habits of diction and syntax that had held Joan of Arc up, and back, on its eighteenth-century stilts. And in a brand-new effort, Thalaba the Destroyer, we see him undertake a reclamation like Landor’s of the continuous epic present, but by equal and opposite stylistic means. Landor later confessed to Southey how in striving for narrative condensation in Gebir he had “boiled away” too much. Southey seems to have reacted to the poem by writing one of his own that incessantly boiled over. In its extravagant advance from one flashpoint crisis to the next, Thalaba engrosses the page-turning reader in the intensities of instant gratification. Southey’s raid on the orient led, like Landor’s, through exotic wonders and antagonistic necromancy to the immolation of the foredoomed hero, but Thalaba answered Gebir’s severity with programmatic excess.
The calculated heedlessness of the poem owed something, too, to the other influence its preface adduces besides Landor—the genial recreation Southey routinely took during these years with his friend Humphrey Davy’s “bag of nitrous oxide.” Still, the gassy hilarity of this most conspicuous of Southey’s contributions to High Romanticism takes effect chiefly at the level of style, in unrhymed, end-stopped, irregularly metered iambics that are gathered into short, untaxing strophes. With this conspicuous and influential turn-of-the-century innovation in form, Southey does all he can to facilitate the reader’s uptake, through a medium elaborately casual, of an episodic narrative that is unrelentingly amazing.
Casual amazement, relaxed astonishment: one form or another of this tension governed British attitudes across the nineteenth century toward an orient that fascinated equally by its hierarchical rigidity and by its indulged deviancies—by the Quran and also by The Arabian Nights—and it is a tension that defines many formal aspects of Thalaba the Destroyer as well. On one hand the poem is so flagrantly improvised that the initial preface (dated 1800) found it advisable to discount “the improvisatore tune” as a thing unworthy. Yet what else may be expected of a work composed at the rapid clip in which the preface of 1837 takes retrospective pride, and which indeed was instrumental to the effect of precipitancy that the poem communicates to this day? The variable blank strophe in delivering its one image per line delivered too a virtual declaration of form’s subordinate transparency to all-enthralling vision. That vision is one of primitive exoticism, focussed and magnified by a verse counterpart of the cadenced prose with which, some four decades previously, the Ossian books had spellbound the public with a comparably primitivist vision. Macpherson’s most prominent heir Walter Scott, who would follow Southey in nothing else, was nevertheless to study the epic effectiveness of this prosodic relaxation and turn it in a direction of his own before the new decade was out.
Rapt by a purpose that exacts total subordination of poetry’s technical means to its narrative ends, Thalaba occupies much the same position as Thalaba himself. Book 1 wastes no time binding the boy to an unbreakable vow of vengeance, and with its fulfillment in book 12, poem and hero expire on the same self-dealt stroke. In Joan of Arc, Southey’s reluctance to imagine Joan’s end precluded so neat a fit of protagonist to plot; still, Thalaba’s totalitarian logic is simply that of Joan taken to the extreme. The poem pursues Thalaba’s quest and nothing but; conversely, Thalaba is his mission. Inscribing a pattern that has descended in our time to the likes of James Bond and Rambo, Thalaba’s character is one of pure agency, whereby antecedents and affections fall away to expose a naked will that, being naked, is not in any meaningful sense his own. Asked where he is going, he truly answers that he doesn’t know: “My purpose is to hold / Straight on” (bk. 10, st. 18). Asked his name in the final book by a man whom his revenge quest has fortuitously benefited and whom he has just told to get out of the way and “Return to life,” Thalaba can only pronounce “the name of God” and leap into an abyss (bk. 12, st. 16-17). Asked by “the all-beholding Prophet” himself what it is that he finally wants, he can only tell the truth: “One only earthly wish have I,—to work / Thy will” (bk. 12, st. 31-32). This is the ecstasy of agency, and in whatever relation it may stand to Islam, it crowns an orientalist fantasy of utter submission that has proved mightily handy to the poet whose will the hero works. Contemporary university students will quickly recognize in the hero-mounted instantaneous narrative forwardness of Thalaba a forerunner of the video-game perspective they have grown up with. Although the poem does not offer, as Blake’s mature epics do, a customizable interactive narrative technology, it nevertheless sustains a sense that some other sequence of events might as well have occurred as the one we are given. This arbitrariness is part of the point, and it points back to the supreme and providential narrative will whose creature Thalaba is.
Where singleness is virtue, the villainous are, as might be expected, the poem’s double agents. Bearers of irony and dabblers in wit, they make it their job to tempt the hero with dubieties that he, in defeating, puts out of mind and beyond the pale. The poem’s first sophisticate, an Old Man who anticipates Tennyson’s Merlin with his fondness for discussing philosophy in public places—“the weeds / Of Falsehood root in the aged pile of Truth”; “Son, what thou say’st is truth, and it is false” (bk. 4, st. 9)—proves to be none other than Lobaba the Domdaniel sorcerer, bent behind the smokescreen of his paradoxes on filching Thalaba’s ring of power. The creepiest monster of them all, Zohak by name, grows snakes from his shoulders that feed on his brain until he strangles them, “of himself / Co-sentient and inseparable parts” (bk. 5, st. 28): so much for Romantic self-consciousness. In the poem’s longest unbroken strophe (and block of iambic pentameter), its subtlest mage Mohareb twits the hero truly with his status as a mere, unwilling agent: “Thou, Thalaba, hast chosen ill thy part, / If choice it may be called, where will was not, / Nor searching doubt” (9.14). But if is a word that evaporates from the working vocabulary of a hero who knows but one condition. “The Talisman is Faith” (5.48), Thalaba learns at the climax of his mid-poem descent to the underworld; and faith rules doubt clean out.
Nor is this all in Thalaba that faith rules out, for Thalaban faith is a condition of simplicity costing not less than everything. To speak of a learning curve on the hero’s part distorts the daunting uniformity of the work’s affect, but if there is any gain in heroic knowledge here it is a deepening confidence, on the part of “the delegated youth” (bk. 4, st. 1; incidentally echoing a favourite epithet for Joan of Arc), that “Destiny / Hath marked me from mankind!” (bk. 7, st. 12, 29). Mark that from: the plot relentlessly shows that “the chosen Arab’s” (bk. 6, st. 4) being elected among mankind entails his being isolated against mankind too. Paradises pall, pleasures crumble, associates betray, and drop-dead beauties keep doing just that. (A condition to which Southey’s imagination recurred, with appalling consistency, in The Curse of Kehama a decade later.) For a fleeting interval late in the poem “the Arabian’s heart / Yearned for human intercourse” (bk. 10, st. 8), the possibility of which flickers up in a girl he meets who, bred among magical simulacra, seems just his type. But the reader knows what is coming: her sudden murder terminally underscores the rules of the poem, which are that Thalaba may consummate his mission only by crossing a one-way Dantesque threshold into the Domdaniel cavern, “All earthly thoughts, all human hopes / And passions now put off” (bk 12, st. 11)—all passions, including the one he started with, “revenge, / The last rebellious feeling” (bk. 11, st. 28).
By this point even the crudest accidents of psychological motive (and thus of character) are sublimated into essence, into the operation of a plot that has been looped all along in gyres of self-fulfilling prophecy. Thalaba’s mission after all is vengeance for the death of his father Hodeirah, whom as the poem begins Okba has murdered in order to avert the prophesied destruction of his race by Hodeirah’s—which is to say, by the very thing it incites, Thalaba’s mission of vengeance. This perfect closed circuit of cause and effect, firmly traced by books 1 and 2, is indelibly inked by all the books that follow. The tenth book, though, spins off an epicycle for good measure: Okba produces an astrological decree requiring the death of either Thalaba or Laila (his new best girl and Okba’s daughter), Thalaba prepares to go under the knife, but then Laila, intervening, receives the fatal wound instead. This is what passes for irony in the Thalaba plot, which not only disables all merely intermediate causation, but leaves characters, Thalaba most of all, helplessly alone in a world so charged with fatality as to render human purposes irrelevant.
Southey designated this poem a “romance” and not an epic, but that was in the same 1800 preface in which he said he was not improvising, so perhaps he should not be believed on this point either.Thalaba’s claim to a place in the history of nineteenth-century epic rests on the manic fusion, the hell-bent coherentism, of its overdriven narrative. Here is a work in which the clichés of daemonical Romanticism actually come true: alienated autonomy in the world-concentring hero and unbeholden prolific creativity in the extemporizing poet are in Thalaba not elements of some subtilizing dialectic with Wordsworthian nature or Shelleyan political culture. They are the whole story, a story whose welded wholeness promotes them with dismaying self-consistency. To the extent that individualism sat on the throne of the Romantic ideology, this was its epic; that the poem for years commanded attention as such appears in various writings by Byron, Thomas Moore, and especially Shelley that exhibit more or less epic ambition; and its energies are still to be felt in the 1820s as a disturbance to the epics of Biblical apocalypse that then came into vogue. Robinson Crusoe, Caleb Williams, and Frankenstein were by contrast temporizing fables of sociability, as their status as novels famously required them to be. With Joan of Arc we hearken to a Romanticism in incubation, within an evidently epic shell. By conversely putting to Thalaba the question of genre we discover how unerringly, and how early, Southey mounted the spiritual updraft of the age: an Icarus no doubt, an epic simpleton if you like, but unignorable by virtue of the very strength that his simplistic abandon unleashed. No work of its period makes it plainer that the emergent modern individualist was also an isolato beyond the reach of reason and deprecation, a profoundly dangerous man: The Destroyer.
The claim of Thalaba to epic standing finds another basis in the larger oeuvre of which it eventually formed part. The long poems Southey went on to write carried out a comparative-culturalist plan wherein the characteristic coherence of a narrative’s design stood for the governing tendency of the culture the narrative represented. Thus The Curse of Kehama redid the essential quest plot of Thalaba in a lavish, proliferant mode suited to Hindu polytheism instead of the monotheistic desert spareness of Islamic Arabia; Madoc (and also the 1825 idyll A Tale of Paraguay) juxtaposed Native American with European colonial cultures in plots thunderously endorsing the supersession of the former by the latter; and Roderick performed a similar narrative arbitration between minor and major branches of European civilization. A panorama of epics: Southey’s grand plan was in itself epic, as we say, and in saying so we acknowledge a collusion of the muse with the museum that wielded mounting authority in Britain during his lifetime. The ideal of epic comprehensiveness now summoned panoptical omniscience to prove itself exhaustively; the epic catalogue learned from the archival one how much there was to know, and the epic poet was increasingly obliged to certify his vision by some recognized evidentiary canon.
The result was the quantity of notes that Southey appended to Thalaba and its successors in a development that became so hard and fast a convention of the Romantic epic that by the 1830s the once lightly annotated Joan had come to look like the rest. Southey did not make this convention up: right across the eighteenth century, new long poems had come into the world wrapped in apparatus appropriate to learned editions of classics. This dressing up of newborns to look like elders had and has something funny about it, as Pope well knew in tricking forth his Dunciad; but by the second half of the century William Willkie or Richard Glover could with utmost sobriety introduce his new Epigoniad (1757) or Leonidas (1770) as if it were a dignified version of itself. What Southey was the first author to do with this mildly Ossianic tradition of bibliographical self-legitimation was drive a wedge into the discursive crack between the voice of epic poetry and that of editorial prose. The authority of validation that is ipso facto vested in commentary becomes, in Southey’s notes to Thalaba, cognitive superiority to the imaginative content of the poem, which the notes expressly denigrate as absurd and childish rubbish, stupid superstition.
Inoculating Thalaba against itself, he purchases immunity from the infection of Arabia and its unbridled fancifulness—or, when he sees his way, the infection of Spain, or France, or credulous Catholicism. The stoical rationalism we noted above as an ingredient that palsied Southey’s faith in narrative’s merely customary probabilities here comes out into the open as the occasionally indignant, but always imperturbable, confidence of a man who knows better than to believe such stuff as his poetic dreams are made of. The last note to book 8 as much as concedes that its plot details are of no consequence, waives probable explanation, and flaunts the poem’s genuine objective: “What could not a Domdanielite perform? The narration would have interrupted the flow of the main story” (note to bk 8, st. 36). With telling candor Southey affirms here what the verse fluency and narrative overdetermination of Thalaba have already amply suggested. Byplay is nothing, forward motion all: let “the flow of the main story” go on. The irony, dubiety, and sophistication that might have retarded that motion have made their way into the notes instead, there to demarcate a European, English, and urbane perspective that, precisely because it is vigilantly orientalist, runs no risk of going oriental.
This most single-minded of poems thus forms only one side of a double-minded text; yet the total text, the book that is Thalaba the Destroyer, is not finally the schizophrenic production it may seem. For the relation of poem to notes is a temporal relation, one that implies a historical progression from childishness to maturity, from primitive to cultured stages, that in orientalist and other aspects was to be nineteenth-century Europe’s favourite story about itself, La légende des siècles in Victor Hugo’s epic slogan (1859-1883), The Ascent of Man in Mathilde Blind’s (1889). The momentum of Thalaba’s reckless quest is not finally checked by Southey’s ruthless notes but instead takes them over, fusing the westward course of empire (translatio imperii in the sense epic never forgot), the spread of enlightenment, and the dominion of the mind with “the flow of the main story.” These are the main story, of which Thalaba and its globe-trotting annotated successors were exponents: their internal totalities, so rote in extravagance and so much like each other, could do no more than mock the sundry complexities of the ill-understood cultures of which Southey aimed to render accounts. But the mirror they held up to the early nineteenth century was prophetic.
Western self-confidence does for the annotative poet what the talisman that is faith does for his hero. He rings himself round with a magic charm whose spell he ceaselessly, contemptuously murmurs from the first page of notes forward. “A waste of ornament and labor characterizes all the works of the Orientalists,” “conveying no idea whatever,” “absurd,” “worthless”; “They have lost their metaphorical rubbish in passing through the filter of a French translation” (note to bk. 1, st. 13). Passing through the occidental filter of French reason and subjected to English prosodic measure, the matter of Araby passes the redemptive test of time and runs the gauntlet of historical progress. So too may fallen “Bagdad” be saved from itself and restored to former glory, “when the enlightened arm / Of Europe conquers to redeem the East!” (bk. 5, st. 6). The homology here between Europe’s arm and Thalaba’s poises their parallel conquests on a dizzying edge where redeeming the oriental past looks very much like destroying it in the name of its future, which is nothing if not the Western present.
We shall find just this ruthless logic realized in Madoc, but we should steel ourselves against disappointment first with a disclaimer. This is a poem likely to frustrate the appetite for postcolonialist critique that may be whetted in readers who, learning that its hero is a pre-Columbian Welsh immigrant to Central America, remember how that part of the globe, astir with nationalism in the early nineteenth century, had caught Britain’s commercially interested eye. Madoc is too ethnocentrically complacent to make for comfortable reading now, yet it is also a little too fair-minded to reward really eager ideological assault. Besides, for all its surface adventurism the poem is too bland—like its unexceptionable blank verse—to take us far into the heart of any but a bureaucratically grey darkness. Madoc, in short, is an Aeneid for the Romantic period, a budding poet laureate’s official portrait of a blameless captain wandering between two worlds, founding a makeshift regime, and dutifully patrolling there a new order kept as humane as the nature of the case will permit. Here are Virgil’s probity, Virgil’s compassionate piety (compassion-fatigue included), even some of Virgil’s openness to internal subversion of the party line. Absent Virgil’s depth of feeling, however, and his brilliance of articulation, the poem remains something of the chore it must have become for Southey—supremely task-oriented poet though he was—as he took it up and put it down again over the course of fifteen years.
Gestating his most properly epic work at the same time Blake did Milton and Wordsworth did The Prelude, Southey settled like them on a plot that valorized the second chance. The poem comes in two unequal parts: “Madoc in Wales” takes up eighteen chapter-like books, “Madoc in Aztlan” twenty-seven, these rationed multiples of nine attesting a designed imbalance that tilts interest toward the later, westerly course of empire. Both theatres of action are cursed by military strife and diplomatic infighting, which it is Madoc’s lot to escape in Wales and his job to eliminate in Mexico. Moreover, Southey has him make the trip to the New World twice, each time espousing on a different order of magnitude the cause of the oppressed Hoamen community against imperial Aztec armies. Madoc’s double exposure to Wales and Mexico works a change in him, but it is only the strictly limited kind of change of which Southey epics are capable: confirmatory intensification of the status quo ante. In other words, Madoc becomes surer than ever that the Welsh scene has no place for him, and then on his return across the Atlantic confirms a suspicion, which he has been harbouring all along, that the only way to coexist with the Aztecs is to control and ultimately overthrow them. Where Wordsworth’s correction of course in The Prelude meant looking homeward and turning back, and Blake’s in Milton meant wholesale perpetual reformation, Southey’s meant escalation of what, being right to begin with, had only to become even righter.
Like Blake and Wordsworth, Southey supplemented the revisionism of this epic action with a recitation of his own past practice in the genre. Remembering the weirdly cloven text of Thalaba, we might say that the task Southey set himself in Madoc was to integrate the antithetical strengths of the earlier text’s poetry and of its notes by combining in one person two apparently inimical forms of excellence: infallible heroic drive and imperturbable modern knowledge. Although more temperate than Southey’s earlier epics, this poem that climaxes in a literal volcanic eruption seethes throughout with an energy nothing on two continents can quite contain. King David of Wales, the hero’s brother, fevers incessantly into unfocussed ambition, and he has a transatlantic opposite number in the hyperkinetic warrior Tlalala (not Thalaba, but close), whom the prospect of cultural disenfranchisement drives to suicide on the poem’s last page. The presence of these foil characters suggests that Madoc is meant to be different—a statesman, a liberal centrist—yet under the incumbent weight of the duties that define him courses the wild antinomian will of a natural alien, born to run. The entire plot turns, after all, on this prince’s dangerous superfluity at home, and even in the new land he reshapes to fit his own image of justice, he remains at bottom an exile, an outsider of Thalaba’s breed and Joan’s. None of the serial crises with which he must cope affects Madoc as wretchedly as the image of his own will that greets him in the daily monotony of racing nowhere on the open sea, at “The centre of that drear circumference, / Progressive, yet no change!” where “speed was toiling in infinity” (pt. 1, bk. 4). When Southeyan drive slips the yoke of work it turns into the nightmare of indolence, disclosing in “the dreary vacancy of heaven” (pt. 1, bk. 4) an existential void that the formidable industry of the poet, as of all his epic protagonists, seems by turns to fill and to flee.
And yet the fugitive who thus runs on empty is at the same time Southey’s most fully fledged version of the epic hero as enlightened man of reason. One way to put this is to observe that Madoc himself could have composed the notes to Madoc, which are more copious than Thalaba’s but much better behaved towards strangers: rather than vaunt and sneer, they respectfully ballast the poem on its linear, historically diligent way. The aplomb of modern western superiority was vouchsafed by the poet in this work to his hero, who not only prevails easily over hosts of Amerindians through European know-how (iron weaponry, superior tactics) but also exhibits an insight into the dynamics of cultural difference that is worthy of a modern ethnographer. When an Aztec chief supposes the new European arrival to be “more than man,” Madoc decides not to “undeceive him” but to “let it work,” qualifying his omissive white lie with a home truth: “Our knowledge is our power” (pt. 1, bk. 6). What this means is soon glossed by Cynetha, a blind old Welshman who sees it all: “First prove your power; / Be in the battle terrible, but spare / The fallen”; neutralizing numerical odds by this machiavellian exhibition of mercy, “Ye shall be / As gods among them” (pt. 1, bk. 7). Neither Madoc nor Southey flinches at the Miltonic thunder of this last allusion—temptation and fall are, apparently, routine costs of doing colonial business—and before long a peace is firmed up by disclaimers of conquest, the allowance of free rein to local folkways, and above all Cynetha’s inspired insinuation that in praising his God to the Aztecs he is merely stating the deep truth that inhabits their mythology already: “I do but waken up a living sense / That sleeps within ye!” (pt. 1, bk. 8). So it is that the power of the textual annotator crosses over into the epic action and becomes a political force to conjure with.
Unfortunately, two can play this game. It turns out that among those Aztec folkways Madoc has promised to leave intact there sleep oppositional forces that the other side can conjure with as well. While he is away in Wales a revanchist priest summons popular resistance around the ancient Snake-God cult (“Before these things I was” [pt. 2, bk. 3]), and when the noble but politic King Yuhidthiton concedes that “we must keep the path our fathers kept” (pt. 2, bk. 5), Madoc finds his comparatist bluff called and has to fall back on main force. Foreclosing all dissent “with authority / From Heaven, to give the law, and to enforce / Obedience” (pt. 2, bk. 8), Madoc orders the Hoamen tribe baptized en masse, “made / Partakers” (pt. 2, bk. 9) of that same worship which was earlier asserted to be theirs by unconstrained intuition. The enjambments just quoted will suggest with what a grim zest Southey narrates this change in the colonial weather, which opens the season on enough espionage, stratagem, and slaughter to fill out the remainder of a long poem. It seems that Cynetha had it wrong, that Madoc’s diplomatic attempt to win hearts and minds was a tactical blunder.
It is tempting to see in this moment Southey’s defection from vanguard into establishment poetry, from epic as critique into epic as raison d’état apologetic. That was what Byron saw and indelibly etched into literary history; for that very reason we should try to counterbalance Byron’s lapsarian view with some stress on the continuity between this moment and the way Southey had gone about epic from the first. For it is Southey’s peculiar contribution to the epic literature of self-correction that blossomed around 1805 to treat conversion as a matter of turning up the volume. Having dallied with mildness, power now must show itself for what it is and has been all along. That means ideology must come clean too, and Southey exults in the purge. From this moment forward, not just the Aztec cult but also the rites of twelfth-century Catholics (including, retroactively, the Welsh bardic ceremonies) are to be regarded as human instruments, wielded with specific leverage and pointed by knowable interests—as so much epic machinery, in short, with which this epic wants nothing to do. “Pure was the faith of Madoc” (pt 1, bk. 13), an energy so inwardly pure that outward religion at its touch crumbles into cultural accidentals. The labour of demystification crowns Madoc with its narrative climax in the penultimate book, entitled “The Close of the Century”: an entrenched native priestcraft’s last stand at the Aztec fin de siècle is pre-empted when the volcano drowns their city in lava. If it is nature that trumps civilization here, it is a nature whose ironic sense of timing allies it with a modern anomie for which nothing is sacred.
What all this ruthless ideological defoliation leaves behind is an ad hoc heroism compounded half of pity and half of righteousness and spared from coming to grips with its contradictions only by the state of emergency that runs it ragged. Madoc, the permanent alien who sees through everything but his own frenetic purposefulness, sees things through to the bittersweet end of being “left sole Lord” (pt 2, bk. 27). As the Aztecs become emigrants in their turn and take their household gods away (“No Priest must dwell among us,” says Madoc’s purgative decree (pt. 2, bk. 27), the sole Lord that remains is a universal-solvent deistic abstraction; the sole remaining comfort is the emaciated nobility that Madoc and Yuhidthiton hail in each other’s disenchanted, faintly Homeric adieux. This epic leaves its hero, the conqueror of little and founder of nothing, spearheading disaster relief, and in this aftermath sense he ends where he began. Early in the poem, just before Madoc narrates his American travels, the “chief of Bards” sings to the Welsh court the exploits of their ancestral hero Owen. It is an oral epic of national “triumph,” which Southey hurries past for the sake of Madoc’s reaction: at first exultant, he is soon swallowed up in “oppressive memory” of “the fate of all his gallant house” and weeps for “days that were no more” (pt. 1, bk. 2). That this lachrymose Aeneas ends as a gutted Achilles, succouring an Aztec Priam but unaffected by any felt share in his doom, suggests that Southey’s largest project of epic integration could not help reproducing what Joan and Thalaba had also formerly displayed yet seemed less chastened by: a radical cleavage between actuating value and consequential action.
Madoc appeared in 1805, just when the phenomenal success of Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel bent the British epic decisively toward romance, and just before its sequel Marmion (1808) consolidated Scott’s recipe for capitalizing on the nationalism of a people at long-term war. One hesitates to exempt any romance epic published in Scott’s broad wake from suspicion of harbouring a national allegory; if Southey’s The Curse of Kehama (1810) does escape suspicion, that may be due to the poet’s having conceived it in the same 1790s spirit of inventive exhilaration that engendered Thalaba—a poem that the psychedelia of Kehama make to look like a demure idyll. Southey took care to establish that he had begun his Indian epic a decade before publication, and he ascribed to the hyperbole-bankrupting extravagance of Hindu mythology his manifest ambition “to combine the utmost richness of versification with the greatest freedom” (1838 Preface, vol. 8, p. 7). But to the student of contemporary verse narrative, the spread and clang of Kehama’s copious, freely rhyming strophes also suggest an attempt on Southey’s part to overtake at any cost a set of epic developments that Thalaba had helped sponsor but that had, since Scott, outflanked him.
The plot is notoriously incredible in its incidents and inconsequent in their relation. (Cardinal Newman, who adored the poem, must have done so in part because of the strenuous challenge it posed to heroic belief.) Yet The Curse of Kehama is held together largely by what might be thought of as the narrative equivalent of rhyme, which was the new ornament Southey here superadded to the unbound stanzaic scheme he had pioneered in Thalaba. For the extravagances of Kehama rhyme with each other, conformed into patterns of parallel and contrast that brace up an aesthetic coherence quite independent of the absurdity of its constituent elements. Not once but twice does the insatiable tyrant Kehama perform the ritual sacrifice of one hallowed steed per day for a hundred straight days (books 8 and 12), as if to spend the poem’s way out of plot-inflation by striking off more and more of the same currency. Our peasant hero Ladurlad plunges not twice but thrice, deeper each time, on successive rescue missions into a river (book 3), then a submarine city (book 15), and at last the Padalon or divine Underworld itself (book 22). At the beginning of the twenty-fourth and final book Southey literalizes the supervention of spatial pattern on temporal narrative by having Kehama appear simultaneously at all eight Gates of Hell, “on every side, / In the same indivisible point of time” (bk. 24, st. 2). And then, to cap a list of symmetries that might be lengthened to no good end, the curse Kehama has pronounced on Ladurlad in book 2 redounds on his own head, where it figures at once as the ultimate crown of his power and as the terminal self-administration of an impossible, inevitable, and above all ineffable suicide.
This titular curse, conjoining eternal invulnerability with eternal discomfort, strongly approximates the condition of total immunity reached by Thalaba at the end of his quest. We might therefore grasp all Southey’s lateral equilibration and buttressing of the plot as an attempt to cope with what happens when such a condition is an initial narrative given. This epic Achilles has no heel, so his story has no traction; with forward motion stymied, nothing significant can eventuate because anything can happen. All that remains is wonder, or a masque of wonders taken for signs that, because they cannot signify in the usual way of narrative build-up and denouement, fold back on themselves like Southey’s redundantly rhymed stanzas. Thalaba hyped sheer incident to a point at which heroic agency dissolved in action-packed deediness; Kehama’s elephantine spectacularization of the scenic bankrupts the bedazzled imagination, which does not so much conceive scenes as it receives an incessant, and to that extent unsustainable, rush of grandeur.
It is in this anomalous epic’s paradoxically numbing hyperaestheticization that we might seek its national significance. To Britain around the turn of the nineteenth century, India was no neutral zone but the major proving ground of empire. As the exploits of empire increasingly gave form to a British identity in ceaseless transition, a need arose to conceive of the template colony India not only as a ludicrous congeries incapable of self-government but also (when regarded with a sufficiently lofty detachment) as a unity, an entity not ungovernable after all because imaginable—though imaginable only en masse and as a brilliant array of highly generalized yet symmetrically disposed effects. To this dual imperial need The Curse of Kehama doubly ministered: in its copious, contemptuously orientalist notes, of course, but also in its narrative system of correspondences internal to the plot. That the latter added up in itself to nothing proved the progressive rightness of the attitudes expressed in the former—which was thus self-immunized, Kehama-like, against critique. The poem is too nearly a swollen reprise of Thalaba to detain us longer here, but it does show how, at the heart of Britain’s most epically active era (1800-1820), the stakes of ethnocentric imagining had become perceptibly higher, and sharper at the point.
Roderick, The Last of the Goths derives as distinctly from Madoc on the strictly epic side of Southey’s megapoetic production as Kehama does from Thalaba on the side of romance. Its appearance in 1814 concurrently with Wordsworth’s Excursion lets us extend by a decade the comparison ventured above between Madoc and the 1805 Prelude. Although Byron had no access to the unpublished Prelude, he was quick, and right, to read in the long 1814 productions of both Lakers signs of an imaginative chastening—even if he was at the same time too quick, and wrong, to decry such chastening as mere loss of nerve. Speaking now from middle age, and from an established position, Southey and Wordsworth were drawn in common to thematics of guilt, endurance, and forgiveness that were notably absent from Madoc and The Prelude—works that were not defective for this absence, but that the later epics let us see were organized by a different ethos implying a simpler narrative model. Circa 1805 the model was problem-solving, the practical legacy that each poet had brought into the new century from the social and generic engineering that had oriented the 1790s: the return of Prince Madoc to Aztlan, and of Wordsworth to England, is in each instance undertaken in order to correct an error for which he is responsible and which he can successfully rectify, acting a hero’s part in a world capable of improvement. Circa 1815 this narrative model no longer availed to describe the world, to define heroism, or to declare any relation between the two that an action of national significance might illustrate. Now a more complex moral calculus arose—subtler, softer, yet no less binding for that—to account for human deeds individually and collectively performed, and especially to shape the history that those deeds amounted to. As error yields to sin in these later epics, regret to remorse, correction to expiation and redemption, the ideal of perfectibility recedes and with it the prestige of origins and the allure of victory. Redemption, indeed, loses much of its customary climactic force and becomes instead a mode of narrative acceptance that enlarges the capacity to encounter a sorrowful past faithfully, without apology or distortion.
Thanks in large part to the sweeping influence Scott’s verse romances had exerted on British epic writing since 1805, the nationalization of guilt and the affiliation of patriotism with continuity had achieved a literary salience that any epic aspiring to the genre’s fullness of encyclopaedic assimilation must engage with. So at least the matter seems to have presented itself to Southey. But since his penchant for transcendental simplification did not consort with the half-tones of moral compromise, when he rose to the new call with Roderick the result was a cloven melodrama. It is as if the poem Southey recognized he ought to write and the poem he had it in him to write coexisted here without consulting each other. On one hand Roderick, unlike any previous Southey protagonist, is a deeply guilty being who never doubts that the loss of his crown and name has been permanently merited by a dark crime from his past. The plot laboriously reveals what this crime was—adulterous sexual assault—but the real interest of the poem lies in how the crime is to be expiated. The means of redemption is Roderick’s mission to create and guide a national resistance movement freeing Spain from Moorish tyranny, and incidentally enabling his incognito reconciliation with all whom he has wronged. Like Joan, Thalaba, Ladurlad, and Madoc, Roderick is a long-odds champion of the oppressed, but here for once a Southey hero staggers under burdens confessedly of his own making.
Thus far into moral complexity Southey advanced to meet the spirit of the age, and no farther. For his way of handling a hero’s guilt was, characteristically, to drive it to extremity and leave it there. The remorseful penitence of Roderick swiftly becomes a luxuriantly ascetic narrative medium equivalent to Madoc’s repressive “self-control” (Roderick bk. 17, p. 177) or Thalaba’s all-destroying talisman (“the heart is dead” [bk. 19, p. 196]), to Kehama’s curse or Joan’s charisma (in battle the hero is made invulnerable by “the shield of Heaven” [bk. 25, p.273]). No virtuous Thalaba now leavens the moral lump of Southey’s Muslims, whom the narrative places in a uniformly polarized moral glare so as to clarify its program: namely, that Roderick’s soul should, “in redeeming this lost land, work out / Redemption for herself” (bk. 4, p. 50). The entire plot is scrupulously contrived to make these two redemptions, of self and of land, dovetail. At the epic midpoint, in disguise and in the “commanding majesty” of his priestly “delegated power” (again that heroic epithet, the one yoke fitting all), Roderick receives from a massed convention of “People and Prince” their unison “vow for Spain / And for the Lord of Hosts” (bk. 12, pp.129-31). And in the final book, just half a poem later, his identity is discovered and celebrated by patriotic troops exultantly driving the craven Moors before them with a motto that might well be the poem’s: “Roderick and Victory! / Roderick and Vengeance!” (bk. 25, pp.269-71).
Thus Southey’s Spanish plot explicated with unusual fullness an argument—the national vindication of a private crime—which epic writers in Britain since Scott had drawn upon but had mainly been content to imply. By laying the matter out in so formulaic and frictionless a way, Southey ran, as he may have recognized, the risk of trivializing the very guilt that made it go. That may be why he literally made Roderick go, spiriting him off the scene of battlefield triumph to pursue, the last page tells us, further penance in a distant hermitage. This resolution, confirming Roderick’s Joan-like status as a catalyst rather than a reagent, confirmed too the enabling paradox that, if you are a Romantic hero, whether Ancient Mariner or Pilgrim Harold, you can expiate your guilt and have it too. Duplicitous moral accountancy did not come easily to Southey’s straight-ahead imagination, but he did see that it was entailed on him by the thematics of epic guilt, and it produced in the last five books the poem’s most interesting feature: the coexistence of two parallel yet incompatible ethics—vengeance and forgiveness—two conceptions of the claim lodged by past injustice against future reparation, and thus two narratives about the significance of history.
The moral bifurcation sets in with the figure of Count Julian, a renegado who has conformed to Islam for raisons d’état and who will return to the Church before the end. But with the appearance of this confessionally compromised figure, the poem’s expiatory design splits down the forking paths of punishment and mercy—values each of which Southey felt obliged to air in the poem although he could not begin to resolve them. Book 21 in particular is a handsomely composed interlude in which Roderick, Julian, and his daughter Florinda (she whom Roderick wronged, but who loves him still) discuss sin, forgiveness, and moral freedom in an inconclusive dialogue that the author of The Excursion should have admired, especially for the way it opens out at last, with nearly Homeric aplomb, onto a description of the encamped armies by moonlight:
bk. 21, p. 223
They, too, by the toil
Of spirit, as by travail of the day
Subdued, were silent, yielding to the hour.
The silver cloud diffusing slowly passed,
And now, into its airy elements
Resolved, is gone; while through the azure depth
Alone in heaven the glorious Moon pursues
Her course appointed, with indifferent beams
Shining upon the silent hills around,
And the dark tents of that unholy host,
Who, all unconscious of impending fate,
Take their last slumber there.
Here is as achieved a piece of writing as Southey’s vast epic output offers. But it comes, alas, from a poet whose drive for narrative results knew no rest, and it impels him in the next books to contrive jarringly discordant enactments of the ethical positions that book 21 has delicately balanced. One plot line leads from betrayal to ambush to full annihilation under the “Roderick and Vengeance!” battlecry, inspired by the stricken Julian’s legacy: “Vengeance! in that good word doth Julian make / His testament” (bk. 24, p. 248). And yet this brazen ethic cedes place to its golden opposite not three pages later, as the same stricken Julian grants Roderick’s request for full pardon, and his aggrieved, ecstatic daughter follows suit. That both Julian and Florinda no sooner declare their forgiveness than perish on the spot is more here than a melodramatic effect; it suggests why Southey had to give mercy itself such short shrift and treat it as a purely private matter. For he apprehended forgiveness as a narrative dead-end that, if it did not lie outside history altogether, lacked anything like the worldly future that the vindictive side of penitent expiation conspicuously possessed. We may conclude that Roderick’s going on as “the avenger” (bk. 25, p. 257) to fight and survive a last battle is of a piece with his going off to repent in a hermitage. Epic heroism as Southey finally conceived it required his hero to remain, for the life of the story, unforgiven.
The life of the story: like it or not, Southey the ripening conservative evinced a surer grasp of epic’s narrative basis than had the younger, activist Southey, who had been inspired by ideas not the least of which was the idea of action itself. One way to measure this career-long change is by comparing Roderick to the early Joan of Arc, which vested so much faith in ideas and so little in narrative that it put the former out of the latter’s reach, as we saw, in an allegorical dream space beyond the time of its tale. While both poems are riven by their precipitously monist author’s incapacity to imagine moral complexity within a matching complexity of integrative vision, by the time of Roderick the rift falls within the story, not between the story and something else.
One last way to measure Southey’s change is by comparing the first and final versions of Joan. In what an 1837 preface called the “testamentary task” of his declining years, Southey thoroughly revised his first epic, “making it more consistent with itself in diction, and less inconsistent in other things with the well-weighed opinions of my maturer years” (Poetical Works, vol. 1, p. 21). The ideological gleam of the last phrase, evoking as it does all that most readers know about this textbook Romantic apostate, should not blind us to the interest of the phrase that comes before it. For the stylistic self-consistency that Southey imposed on the 1837 Joan has everything to do with its conservatism. It is in fact a stunningly smooth performance, an understated masterpiece of the poised and versatile blank verse in which this poet and his associate and laureate heir Wordsworth had schooled themselves and each other for decades, and a most creditable rehearsal of the idyllic effects that the greatest laureate of the nineteenth century, Alfred Tennyson, was even then making his own. These effects were varied but stemmed from an evenness of narrative flow that took all topics in stride—and was unperturbed by an apprentice’s doubt lest any topic prove more than narrative could handle—and they stemmed too from the confidence imparted by an unshakable, single-point authorial perspective. Gone from this text was the desultory, hot-blooded effusiveness of 1796, along with the political ferment it had signified; in its place purled the (not less political) assurance of a proto-Victorian form of cultural authority. That form, continuous and monological, was soon to be installed as an all-purpose governor in the new era’s most widely read fiction and nonfiction narratives. It would come to perfection, within the burgeoning generic suburbs to which epic in the nineteenth century gave rise, in the novels of George Eliot.
Byron wrote of Southey in his journal for 22 November 1813, “His appearance is Epic; and he is the only existing entire man of letters. All the others have some pursuit annexed to their authorship [. . .]. His prose is perfect. Of his poetry there are various opinions: there is, perhaps, too much of it for the present generation; posterity will probably select. He has passages equal to any thing” (qtd in Madden 157).
Political nerve in the first instance, but we should not minimize the sheer chutzpah that flummoxed one contemporary, John Aiken, in an unsigned review of Joan: “Is it possible that a person of classical education can have so slight an opinion of (perhaps) the most arduous effort of human invention, as to suffer the fervour and confidence of youth to hurry him in such a manner through a design which may fix the reputation of a whole life?” (Monthly Review ns 19 : 361-68; qtd. in Madden 41).
See Carnall 43.
The surprising mutual regard between Southey and Carlyle forms a topic in each of two quite differently nuanced essays sympathetic to the former’s much derided socio-political stance: William Haller, “Southey’s Later Radicalism”, and David Eastwood, “Robert Southey and the Intellectual Origins of Romantic Conservatism”. Discerning in the younger author an instinctive fellow catastrophist, Southey gave warm welcome to The French Revolution, while Carlyle for his part thought the laureate the only man he knew whose view of the Revolution matched his own (Eastwood 315). (See also Meachen.) The character sketch of Southey that Carlyle left in later life (1867) might be mistaken for autobiography: “I reckoned him (with those blue blushes and those red) to be the perhaps excitablest of all men; and that a deep mute monition of conscience had spoken to him, ‘You are capable of running mad, if you don’t take care. Acquire habitudes; stick firm as adamant to them at all times, and work, continually work!’” (Reminiscences 2: 328-29).
“The poem tho’ it frequently reach the sentimental, does not display the poetical, Sublime [. . .]. He does not possess opulence of Imagination, lofty-paced Harmony, or that toil of thinking, which is necessary in order to plan a whole” (Coleridge to John Thelwall, 31 Dec. 1796; qtd. in Madden 49). It is right to hear, though hard to share, Landor’s typically contrarian minority opinion that “Southey could grasp great subjects, and completely master them; Coleridge never attempted it; Wordsworth attempted it, and failed” (qtd. in Madden 425).
See Bernhardt-Kabisch: “His real interest was in myth itself, in what he understood, however dimly, not as a mere literary convention but as the original symbolic expression of a people’s peculiar way of apprehending and interpreting reality” (81).
This in fulfillment of a schoolboy’s dream to set on display, as Southey himself put it—and note the subordinate, merely instrumental role he accords to narration—“the most remarkable forms of mythology which have at any time obtained among mankind, by making each the ground-work of a narrative poem” (1838 preface to The Curse of Kehama). The dream was still sustaining Southey in his thirties when he itemized for Anna Seward on 28 May 1808 his plans to cover (in stunningly indifferent order) “the Runic, the Keltic, the Greek, the Jewish, the Roman Catholick, and the Japanese” (Southey, New Letters 2: 476) and crowed to William Taylor in 1805, heady with Madoc, “You will see my Hippogryff touch at Hindostan, fly back to Scandinavia, and then carry me among the fire-worshippers of Istakhar” (qtd. in Wright 149). Most of the scheme went unrealized, yet it seems significant that the cultural geographies Southey did write up into epic confirm more or less Linda Ray Pratt’s hypothesis, in Imperial Eyes, “that Romanticism originated in the contact zones of America [Madoc, also Paraguay], North Africa [bounded by Arabian Thalaba and Spanish Roderick], and the South Seas [Kehama]” (138; interpolations mine).
See Bernhard-Kabisch 42, 92.
This driving will was no respecter of persons, as Coleridge hinted in calling Joan “a Tom Paine in Petticoats” and Southey confirmed in calling Thalaba “a male Joan” (qtd. in Raimond 198, 263). Nor was its sway confined to the poet’s strictly imaginative writings. Edward Dowden declared of his sizable output in nonfiction that “History as written by Southey is narrative rendered spiritual by moral ardour” (196).
Of Hayley’s verse Essay on Epic Poetry (1782) Southey judged that “A greater effect was produced upon the rising generation of scholars, by the Notes to his Essay on Epic Poetry, than by any other contemporary work, the Relics of Ancient Poetry alone excepted” (Quarterly Review 31 : 283). Rising scholars, and also rising poets: Hayley had advocated feminizing epic (Joan), preached down epic machinery (Madoc, Roderick), and recommended topics drawn from the mythology of India (Kehama)—advice Southey followed more dutifully than Hayley’s protégé Blake would do.
I cite Robert Southey [and Samuel Taylor Coleridge], Joan of Arc, 1796 [Oxford and New York: Woodstock, 1993]), by book and line number. Thalaba and Kehama are cited by book and stanza number, Madoc by part and book number, and Roderick by book and page number from Poetical Works, 10 vols. (Boston: Houghton, 1878).
Southey’s epic practice thus correlates largely with the tradition of eighteenth-century epic analyzed by Peter Hägin in The Epic Hero and the Decline of Heroic Poetry: “The choric character of the epic was to be expressed in a concrete choric action involving multitudes of people under the leadership of a great hero who represented not himself but the moral, spiritual and political beliefs of the poet’s own age” (31; see also 52-55). But in Southey, unlike say his admired Glover (Leonidas), the neoclassical choric impetus splits into a detailed, proto-ethnographic grasp of culturally specific detail on the one hand, and on the other hand the morally transcendent position of the Romantic sublime.
For pertinent remarks on the Landor-Southey relationship see Cronin 108-132.
Reported by George Saintsbury in chapter 9 of Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. 12, ed. W. A. Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1915) 210.
In a letter of 5 September 1799, Southey confided to William Taylor, “I can conceive this gas to be the atmosphere of Mohammed’s Paradise” (New Letters 1: 129).
William Taylor’s unsigned review of Thalaba, which was the work of a friend, seems to speak for Southey in ascribing to the style “a plasticity and variety of which epic poetry offers no other example” and declaring, “The author calls it a metrical romance; he might have called it a lyrical one; for the story is told, as in an ode, by implication; not directly, as in an epopoeia. It is a gallery of successive pictures” (Critical Review 2nd ser 39 : 369-79).
See Raimond 265: “La foi qui l’anime est plus qu’un talisman; c’est une carapace. . . . Thalaba est inhumain à force de perfection.” [The faith that animates him is more than a talisman; it is a shell [. . .]. Thalaba is inhuman by virtue of perfection.]
Richard Hoffpauir summarizes Southey’s tergiversation as to the genre of his poems (241-42).
According to Javed Majeed, Southey followed the founding example of William Jones in presenting “his mythological poems as self-contained wholes which were faithful to their originals” (52). This “rhetoric of authenticity and fidelity”, I would add, succeeded because it was also an epic rhetoric of holism, which imputed comprehensible consistency to an alien culture by supposing it to have a keynote or ruling passion—to be, in effect, a heroically united collectivity.
As Raimond drily remarks of Madoc, in Southey the supernatural seems that way only to the natives (241). The result is an imaginative fissuring to which readers have long directed attention. See C. H. Herford: “He was too ‘enlightened’ to penetrate into the inner genius of the faiths whose picturesque beauty he admired. He stood on the verge of two centuries, between rationalism and Romanticism, participating in both, possessed by neither” (208). Bernhard-Kabisch finds the mythological poet “caught between the Enlightenment’s latitudinarian interests and its residual ethnocentrism or new positivist arrogance” (84); for Mark Storey, “Southey was clearly seduced by the very material that half of him found repellent” (120).
One critic who suggestively integrates the poems with the notes is Maheed, who finds Southey figuring his own scholarship in the epic imagery of depths and of echoes (49-50), expressing through the re-memberment of dismembered bodies and reanimation of dead ones a concern “to reanimate and reunify cultures” (73-75), and contrariwise betraying with recurring images of paralysis and inundation a defensive “ambivalence towards the past and tradition” and horror of oriental energy (78, 84).
Parallels with The Aeneid are discussed by Kenneth Curry in “Southey’s Madoc: The Manuscript of 1794.”
Southey was seen this way by others, and also by himself when young. In The Spirit of the Age (1824) Hazlitt shrewdly depicted his tory adversary as a Napoleonic anarch: “He is wild, irregular, singular, extreme [. . .]. He is decidedly revolutionary” (140-41). See too Southey’s 26 July 1796 letter to Grosvenor Bedford: “Perhaps I was created in some better planet and kicked out for sedition. This I am very sure of—that I feel out of element in this” (New Letters 1: 114). During the years he gestated Madoc this radical streak of Southey’s may have found a local habitation and name in contemporary Welsh cultural insurgency; see Gwyn Williams, “Welsh Indians: The Madoc Legend and the First Welsh Radicalism”.
Bernhard-Kabisch’s assertion that in Roderick the epic “machinery, so to speak, has finally gone underground and become pure apparatus” (146) is witty but belated since that migration had already taken place in Madoc.
To the dismayed Eclectic Review (1805) Madoc seemed “a marauder, possibly almost as savage as the Indians themselves,” while for Macaulay in 1830—embroiled at that point in a sharp public polemic with Southey—the poems demonstrate that “What theologians call the spiritual sins are his cardinal virtues—hatred, pride, and the insatiable thirst of vengeance [. . .]. A severe and gloomy tyranny—crushing opposition—silencing remonstrance—drilling the minds of the people into unreasoning obedience,—has in it something of grandeur which delights his imagination” (qtd. in Madden 107, 346).
This manner of Southey’s consistently drew fire from the faithful. An unsigned 1815 review of Roderick in The Christian Observer acutely remarked that, in the endnotes to this and previous Southey epics, “the different style of thinking and feeling which they appear to shew in the poet and the commentator [. . .]. There is something hard, something sarcastic, something scoffing [. . .] ‘the knowing style’” (qtd. in Madden 189). An earlier anonymous review of Kehama in The Monthly Mirror (1811) had found that poem “calculated to expose our holy and sublime miracles and mysteries, as written in the Sacred Volume, and poetically used by Milton, to all that sort of contempt, which the idle and profane wit of infidelity can heap upon it” (qtd. in Madden 134). It fell to the bellwether of early Victorian orthodoxy, John Keble, to devote a portion of his Latin lectures at Oxford to reclaiming Southey’s practice “by reason of the implied, underlying comparison which the reader’s mind spontaneously institutes for itself. While we read, we reflect, that is to say, how one affected and influenced, in this or that manner, by these erroneous beliefs, would develop when once brought to a knowledge of sound and pure religious truth” (2: 314).
Once colonial Realpolitik has wrung the Pantisocratic idealism out of Southey’s American venture, Madoc becomes, as Hoffpauir says, “the bleakest and most uncompromising of his epic moral visions” (109). Anna Seward—herself an early translator of Fénélon’s moralized Homer into heroic if unpublished verse (“Telemachus,” circa 1793)—saw something of same kind and grasped its Homeric affiliations, in the figure of “Yuhidthiton, conquered and wandering into exile. He seems to me, in some sort, the Hector of this epic” (letter of 15 August 1809 to Southey, in Letters 6: 359).
Raimond ridicules the contrast between Madoc’s promptness to intervene on behalf of the oppressed Hoamen of Central America and his failure to take similar action back home in Wales “quand son propre pays subit le joug d’un despote fratricide” [when his own land lies under the yoke of a fratricidal despot] (237). Yet this epic disconnect, in Southey and other epic poets of the century, may be less absurd than it is historically evocative of the peculiarly “exported” nature of British imperial nationalism during the nineteenth century. See also Kumar.
Southey extolled all his epics loftily as soon as he had completed them, but some chastening is observable between his writing C. W. W. Wynn about Thalaba on 21 February 1801—“I know of no poem which can claim a place between it and the Orlando”—and the way he told Thomas Southey, on the day he finished Kehama (25 November 1809), “Every generation will afford me some half dozen admirers of it, and the everlasting column of Dante’s fame does not stand upon a wider base.” Writing to Scott himself, however, in a letter of 30 July 1809, Southey was content merely to stake out a difference: “The rhymes are as irregular as your own, but in a different key” (The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey 2: 134, 3: 268, 3: 247).
In “Poetry, with Reference to Aristotle’s Poetics” (1829), the young Newman wrote, “In his use of the doctrine of a future life, Southey is admirable. Other writers are content to conduct their heroes to temporal happiness;—Southey refuses present comfort to his Ladurlad, Thalaba, and Roderick, but carries them on through suffering to another world. The death of his hero is the termination of the action; yet so little in two of them, at least, does this catastrophe excite sorrowful feelings, that some readers may be startled to be reminded of the fact” (16). In 1850 the recent Catholic convert remained true to his old literary affection: “Thalaba has ever been to my feelings the most sublime of English Poems—I don’t know Spenser—I mean morally sublime. And his poems generally end, not with a marriage, but with death and future glory [. . .]. They are epics, not a string of sonnets or epigrams. [. . .] I read Kehama and got it well nigh by heart” (letter of 22 March 1850 to J. M. Capes; qtd. in Madden 422).
This rush was what readers of Thalaba had either loved or hated. Contrast the unsigned review from the Monthly Magazine (1802)—“Whatever loss of interest this poem may sustain, as a whole, by an apparent driftlessness of the events and characters, is compensated for by the busy variety, the picturesque imagery, and striking originality of the parts” (qtd. in Madden 67)—with Francis Jeffrey’s contemporaneous volley at the Lakers in the first number of the Edinburgh Review: “It is needless to speak of the fatigue that is produced by this unceasing summons to admiration, or of the compassion which is excited by the spectacle of these eternal strivings and distortions. Those authors appear to forget, that a whole poem cannot be made up of striking passages” (69-70).
Edward Meachen suggests that in Roderick the poet was resuming a generic trauma: “Man’s first crime, according to Southey, was a sexual act. [. . .] Every epic portrays a rape scene and in every case the sexual crime leads to death” (602).
As Storey puts it, “For all the Christian colouring, Roderick is a later manifestation of Thalaba the Destroyer” (231).
At the middle of the century, John Anster suggested the national diffusion of this aspect of Southey’s legacy and thus its epic character: “For a period of more than fifty years the writings of Southey were among those which, in England, most contributed to create or to modify public opinion [. . .]. [His] thoughts it is which are expressed in a dialect which he feels to be common property, and of which he as little remembers how each particular phrase or cadence has been formed, as we can determine how we have learned the words of the language we speak” (North British Review ; qtd. in Storey 348). The same thought persists in Dowden’s tribute, a generation later, to prose virtues that also inhabit the mature narrative verse: “There is no style fitter for continuous narrative than the pedestrian style of Southey [. . .]. Because his style is natural it is inimitable, and the only way to write like Southey is to write well” (196-97).
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