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In Robert Southey’s blank-verse poem “History,” written between mid 1798 and early 1799, the poet asks himself the repeated question, “Was it for this [. . .]?” (lines 16-17). Examining the development of his “young mind” and “swelling heart” and his aspirations to “love / His fellow kind,” the troubled writer finds himself confronted by the “crimes” of history and calls on “gentle Poesy” to receive him from scenes such as “the fields of war” so that he may “nurse / My nature’s better feelings, for my soul / Sickens at man’s misdeeds” (1-8). This familiar narrative of an overwhelming sense of personal and political crisis producing a turn away from “History,” often figured, as here, as a retreat to a bower, has been a major feature of accounts of canonical Romanticism and still holds considerable sway. For example, in The Hidden Wordsworth, Kenneth R. Johnston writes that Thelwall’s “Lines written at Bridgwater” in July 1797 show that “a ‘peaceful retreat’ was all that he wanted [. . .]. Like Coleridge’s conversation poems and like ‘Tintern Abbey,’ Thelwall’s ‘Lines’ record the final turn by which the revolutionary hopes and actions of the 1790s turned inward to the form of culture we call Romanticism” (389). But Southey’s account of his poetic development fits Johnston’s romantic retreat model only until the second verse paragraph when “History” answers back. Like Wordsworth’s The Prelude—also begun in 1798 with the repeated question “Was it for this [. . .]?” (1.1)—“History” is a poem of poetic dedication at a time of historical crisis, but while history emerges only at the end of the two-book Prelude with the closing references to “these times of fear” and “this time / Of dereliction and dismay” (2.479, 486-7)[1], in Southey’s poem it is “History” itself which offers the solution to the crisis. The poet’s initial renunciation of “History” as a “chronicle of crimes” prompts the appearance of “CLIO, the strong-ey’d Muse” of history (l.10) who, angry and majestic, pours scorn on the poet’s longing for retreat and its consequences for his poetry and reminds him of the spirit that formed this particular favoured being:

 Go, young man! she cried;

 Sigh among myrtle bow’rs, and let thy soul

 Effuse itself in strains so sorrowful sweet

 That love-sick maids may weep upon thy page,

 In most delicious sorrow! Oh shame! shame!

 Was it for this I waken’d thy young mind?

 Was it for this I made they swelling heart

 Throb at the deeds of Greece, and thy boy’s eye

 So kindle when that glorious Spartan died?

 Boy! boy! deceive me not! [. . .]


Through Clio’s severe intervention, Southey presents himself, like Wordsworth in The Prelude, as a chosen son educated for a special task; he has risen “With nobler feelings, with a deeper love / For Freedom [. . .]” (25-6). But whereas Wordsworth presents himself and his poetic identity as formed by Nature, Southey’s grand preceptor and inspiring power is history:

 [. . .] let that spirit fill

 Thy song, and it shall teach thee, boy! to raise

 Strains such as CATO had not scorn’d to hear,

 As SIDNEY in his hall of fame may love.


At a moment of historical and vocational crisis, history sustains Southey so that he may in turn sustain history.

It seems likely that Southey and Wordsworth drew on the same sources in Ariosto, Milton, Thomson and Pope for the phrase “Was it for this [. . .]?” but less certain is whether either knew of the other’s use of it in their contemporaneous explorations of poetic identity (The Prelude 1, l. 2, n. 2). Wordsworth was probably the first to use the formula, beginning his first draft of The Prelude with the phrase in October 1798 in Goslar (Prelude p. 512). Southey’s poem was published in January 1799, and the evidence of his Common-Place Book suggests it was written shortly before this, though in later editions he dated it to Westbury 1798, which would mean it could have been written any time after June 1798 (Southey, Common-Place Book 4: 194). At 31 lines to The Prelude’s 8,000, “History” may seem more like a reductio ad absurdum of Wordsworth’s epic than a genuine answer to it, but it does offer a manifesto for a different poetic mode to the one normally defined as Romantic, one that is politically committed and speaks with what Southey terms in another poem of 1798 “the calm, collected public voice” (Curry, Contributions 32). Marilyn Butler has presented the political, public Southey as an alternative exemplary Romantic figure to the Wordsworth that she sees constructed by the quietist, intellectual agendas of the academy (Butler, “Repossessing” 64-84). Southey’s assertion of his identity as a historical, politically oriented poet represents an important intervention in contemporary debates about poetry’s role in which poetry was being increasingly elevated and detached from political subject matter. If Southey’s poem opens by establishing an opposition between two kinds of writing, history’s “Chronicle” and the strains of “poesy,” only to collapse that distinction in his own historically inspired song, this opening opposition invokes and parodies the way poetry was often feminized in the writing of the 1790s as a trembling or timid Muse who turns away from the subject of the war with France, seeking like the poet of “History” the shelter of the bower removed from “the court’s polluted scenes, / [. . .] dungeon horrors, [. . . and] the fields of war” (4-5). This essay will examine the way in which Southey and Wordsworth responded to the conflict with France in their poetry and show how the war played a major role in the shaping of their poetic identities.

I. Robert Southey and “War’s varied horrors”

By the time of his poetic rededication to “History” in 1798, Southey could make a strong claim for himself as one of the main poets writing about the war with France, and he was presented as such by The Anti-Jacobin, which found in his work the raw materials for its description of the “Jacobin poet” (see Carnall, and Raimond 181-96)[2]. He had identified “War’s varied horrors” as the subject of his epic, Joan of Arc, which he had begun in 1793 and which had established his reputation when published in 1796 (Southey, Joan 5)[3], and he had followed this ambitious work with a series of shorter pieces including the “Botany-Bay Eclogues” which gave a voice to the victims of war, the poems on the sufferers of the conflict such as “The Soldier’s Wife” that were attacked and parodied in The Anti-Jacobin, and several anti-war pieces in the Morning Post.[4] The poetic threat that Southey posed to conservative writers like T. J. Mathias, Anna Seward and the contributors to The Anti-Jacobin came not only from “his principles” but also from the fact that he was a poet of “great promise,” to use Mathias’s terms (298), capable of adopting the highest literary forms for his political purpose, as he had shown in Joan of Arc, echoing Virgil’s Aeneid in the invocation of a work epic in structure and ambition but seeking to invert the traditional values of the form (Cronin 66-9):[5]

War’s varied horrors, and the train of ills,

That follow on Ambition’s blood-stain’d path

And fill the world with woe; of France preserv’d

By maiden hand, what time her chiefs subdued,

Or slept in death, or lingered life in chains,

I sing: nor wilt thou FREEDOM scorn the song.


While a number of reviews praised the poetic powers displayed in this precocious work, they also noted the contemporary nature of its “liberal” and “enlightened” sentiments, its anti-war agenda (“War, and the lust of conquest, are every where painted in the strongest colours of abhorrence”) and its narrative of a French heroine and people triumphing over an invading English army (John Aikin, Monthly Review; qtd. in Madden 42). Southey presents the conflict in Godwinian fashion: not as a national war between England and France but as a political war of guilty “Mighty Ones” against innocent people, its effects felt most severely by “the poor man” (2.717-25; 2.590-1). In her role as God’s minister, Joan sees herself as a representative, not of France, but of all mankind (8.642-4), and she declares the soldiers of the English invading force to be just as much the “victims of the mighty” as the French (8.526). Southey’s descriptions of the victories of the French people over the invading army in book 10 particularly allude to the success of the citizen army of the French “Nation in Arms” in the early years of the war, while also prophesying its further victories:

And by the Mission’d Maiden’s rumour’d deeds

Inspirited, the Citizens of Rheims

Feel their own strength; against the English troops

With patriot valour, irresistible,

They rise, they conquer, and to their liege Lord

Present the city keys.


Here Joan becomes an embodiment of the radical vision of freedom in the early 1790s, a martial female figure inspiring the nation to victory over the oppressive forces of despotism.

Southey reinforces his questioning of the epic and its links with martial culture through his inversion of generic and gender values, as Cronin has argued (68). If Joan Of Arc is a poem in which “the epic is subordinate to the pastoral,” it is also one in which the masculine martial urge is subordinated to the feminized powers of feeling, as Coleridge noted when describing the poem as “frequently reach[ing] the sentimental” and Southey as a poet of “feeling” (qtd. in Madden 49). This sentimental emphasis is most evident in the passages describing the victims of war, both combatants and non-combatants; Charles Lamb’s comment that the “very many passages of simple pathos abounding throughout the poem” might have been written by “the author of ‘Crazy Kate’” reveals the extent to which Southey called on the poetics of sensibility in his critique of war (qtd. in Madden 46). But Southey goes beyond simply juxtaposing the manly epic poetry of war with the feminized anti-war verse of sensibility. Rather he destabilizes the traditional link between war and masculinity. As Cronin argues, one of the “Jacobin” elements of Joan of Arc is its “dismantling of gender differences [. . .]. [Joan] is a woman who dedicates herself to ‘active duties’ (9.167), rejecting alike a life of cloistered contemplation, and a life of married love,” while Theodore takes on the roles traditionally associated with women, returning to look after his aged mother and disguising himself to follow Joan (Cronin 68). Joan’s identity as a “martial maid” assumes a wider significance because it undermines the gender difference which provides the foundation for the sense of power of the English military leaders, for whom defeat by “a frenzied girl” leads to a loss of manly identity (7.511-3, 10.265-76). Southey also uses Joan to figure the poem’s feminization of the idea of “just war,” which can only be motivated by feelings of compassion and pity. This idea is embodied by the warrior of feeling, Conrade, who presents a justification of his readiness to fight grounded in the ethics of sensibility: “my heart is fleshly: I do feel / For what my brethren suffer” (1.372-3). Conrade represents a redefined manliness that is contrasted with the hardhearted English (6.231, 249), especially the “cold-hearted Foeman” Henry V (2.617), remembered as “that merciless man” for his pitiless treatment of women and children at the siege of Rouen (2.667-670). Conrade’s grounding of his war ethic in his “heart” is a lesson which has to be learned by Joan, who prior to meeting Conrade “never dreamt of what the wretched feel” (1.347), and she in turn teaches it to the French King Charles VII. Whereas the English leaders are constantly represented as fighting for “glory” (8.276, 10.316, 350, 456-63, 497, 542), it is not only Joan whom “no lust of glory leads to arms” (4.146): the whole French nation is driven to “holy warfare” by the power of sensibility—“Thus rous’d to rage / By every milder feeling, they rush’d forth, / They fought, they conquer’d” (10.98, 104-6).

Southey’s combination of the high and manly form of epic and an insistence on the necessity of feminized feeling within a polemical poem made Joan of Arc a focus for debates about the compatibility of an elevated conception of poetry with historical subject matter and political purpose. For Coleridge, who in 1796 shared Southey’s anti-war agenda, it was “a poem which exhibits fresh proof that great poetical talents and high sentiments of liberty do reciprocally produce and assist each other” (Coleridge, Watchman 44). But for another major poet of the decade, Anna Seward, the poem’s explicit politics were irreconcilable with its high aesthetic value. In her “Lines Written [. . .] after Reading Southey’s ‘Joan of Arc,’” published in the European Magazine in August 1797, she begins:

 Base is the purpose of this Epic Song,

 Baneful its powers; but, oh, the Poesy

 (“What can it less when Sun-born GENIUS sings?”)

 Wraps in reluctant ecstasy the soul

 Where Poesy is felt.

Bennett 198

Joan of Arc is problematic for Seward because it is at once politically poisonous, with an explicit “purpose,” yet unmistakably the elevated poetry produced by genius and appreciated only by certain select readers. Seward suggests that it is Southey’s youth and lack of manliness that are responsible for his political beliefs, addressing him as “Oh, unnat’ral Boy; / Oh, beardless Paricide” (Bennett 199). She presents his Muse as a monstrous version of the true Muse of poetry, describing it as a “treach’rous Muse / In Comet splendours, in MEDUSA’s beauty / Balefully deck’d” (Bennett 199). Southey’s poem, like Joan of Arc herself, is a debasement of the naturally feminine. It is also dangerous, threatening with its dazzling but deceiving beauty to transform its astonished readers into Jacobins. Seward’s use of an evaluative language of gender in her attack on Joan of Arc can be compared with The Anti-Jacobin’s attack in its first issue of 20 November 1797 on the “Jacobin poet,” a figure partly based on Southey (Anti-Jacobin 1. 14). This attack presents the “coy Muse of Jacobinism” as deceptively alluring but falling short of the ideal standard of a “pure” Muse of poetry to the extent that it calls into question its own gendered identity. Despite her many disguises, Jacobin poetry is essentially characterized by the manly features of a “drunken swagger and ruffian tone,” analogous to the cross-dressed figure of Sir John Brute of Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife. Both Seward and The Anti-Jacobin recognize that much of the power of Southey’s epic derives from its emphasis on the feminized qualities of “piety and tenderness,” to quote The Anti-Jacobin (1. 14), and both seek to present this emphasis as a deception which disguises a manly political purpose. Their arguments illustrate the politics of this evaluative language of gender in suggesting that true poetry is feminine and that it transcends the factional.

Southey’s “History” can be seen as a retort to these attacks and to these constructions of poetry, offering “CLIO, the strong-eyed Muse” as a response to the representations of his verse as the “treach’rous Muse” and “coy Muse of Jacobinism” and providing a powerful figuring of his poetry as both elevated and historical. Yet, written in 1798, Southey’s rededication can also be seen as an critique of those poets who it seemed to him had indeed deceived the Muse of History and retreated to the “myrtle bowers” of “gentle Poesy,” supporting Marilyn Butler’s suggestion that the most famous collection of that year, Lyrical Ballads, should be seen as a non-political collection, particularly in comparison with the sustained radicalism of Southey’s collections of Poems of 1797 and 1799 (Butler, “Bristol Model”). To Southey, Butler argues, Lyrical Ballads looked like a failure to stand firm against the Anti-Jacobin’s attacks. Clio’s calm anger, we might say, was Southey’s, and the boy who threatened to deceive him was Wordsworth. It was not Wordsworth alone, perhaps, who asked of his poetic position in 1798, “Was it for this [. . .]?”

II. Wordsworth and the Poetic Figures of War

Southey’s accusation that Wordsworth had turned away from history in 1798 was a charge that has since been repeated by a number of important critical assessments of Wordsworth’s career. These accounts see the poet’s development as characterized by a shift from a polemical humanitarian concern with suffering individuals to an interest in states of mind and being, seen for example in the revision of Salisbury Plain, which Mary Jacobus has described as the “most impressive protest poem of its time” (Jacobus, Tradition 148), into the version now known as Adventures on Salisbury Plain. As Stephen Gill has argued, Adventures on Salisbury Plain “continues the social and political interests of the poem, and even extends them [. . .] [through] a fully dramatized presentation of human calamities consequent upon war, but Wordsworth’s interest was rapidly shifting from social and political phenomena to the more complex phenomena of human motives and behaviour” (Wordsworth, Salisbury Plain Poems 12). For Gill, the later version signals Wordsworth’s discovery of his true significance as a poet and his realization that “his theme was indeed the mind of man and that his was a major, original genius” (Wordsworth, Salisbury Plain Poems 13).[6]

These developments in Wordsworth’s writing, particularly as they affected the relationship between his poetic role and his response to the figures of war, can be examined through a discussion of one of his encounters with history in “The Discharged Soldier,” a blank-verse fragment describing an incident that probably took place in 1788 and that Wordsworth would later include in book 4 of The Prelude.[7] Written in 1798, the year Southey’s encounter with history in the form of Clio prompted his poetic rededication, Wordsworth’s encounter also produced a moment of poetic dedication, but one in which “History” remains an other that troubles the poet’s sense of vocation. Wordsworth represents the experience of war through encounter and tale-telling, as his wandering poetic persona, on turning a corner, finds “Presented to my view an uncouth shape,” who he later sees is “clad in military garb” (William Wordsworth, “Discharged,” lines 48, 54).[8] Like the figures of war in Wordsworth’s earlier poetry, and like the many returning soldiers of the newspaper and magazine poetry of the decade, the soldier tells his tale:

 [. . .] when erelong

I asked his history, he in reply

Was neither slow nor eager, but unmoved,

And with a quiet uncomplaining voice,

A stately air of mild indifference,

He told a simple fact: that he had been

A Soldier, to the tropic isles had gone,

Whence he had landed now some ten days past;

That on his landing he had been dismissed,

And with the little strength he yet had left

Was travelling to regain his native home.


Toby R. Benis has given a powerfully contextualized reading of the poem as one that “criticizes Britain’s leaders,” seeing the soldier as a figure “whose sickly condition and wanderings are direct products of government policy and military service” (198). Yet in the context of the newspaper and magazine verse on wounded and returning soldiers—such as Robert Merry’s “The Wounded Soldier” written in the middle of the decade and printed in The Spirit of the Public Journals in 1799 (Bennett 242-5)[9]—what is striking in Wordsworth’s presentation of the soldier’s telling of his tale is its lack of political and polemical force and its failure to produce the conventional poetic responses of sympathy or indignation on the part of the poet. In contrast, Merry concludes his poem by drawing an explicit political message from his tale of a returning soldier:

 O, may this my tale, which agony must close,

 Give due contrition to the self-call’d great,

 And show the poor how hard the lot of those

 Who shed their blood for ministers of state !

Bennett 245

The Anti-Jacobin had criticized “Jacobin” poetry such as Merry’s in its second issue of 27 November 1797, giving an outline of the standard poetic techniques used by the writers of such verse:

A human being, in the lowest state of penury and distress, is a treasure to a reasoner of this cast. He contemplates, he examines, he turns him in every possible light, with a view of extracting from the variety of his wretchedness new topics of invective against the pride of property. He indeed (if he is a true Jacobin), refrains from relieving the object of his compassionate contemplation; as well knowing, that every diminution from the general mass of human misery, must proportionally diminish the force of his argument.

The Anti-Jacobin 1: 19-20

In his treatment of the discharged soldier, it is as if the Wordsworthian narrator is responding to this attack, recommending that he accompany the soldier to the dwelling of a labourer who “will give you food if food you need, / And lodging for the night” (114-15). And reinforcing the soldier’s failure to fulfil the polemical and emotive role that would be allotted to him in much political poetry, the poet again questions him about his “history,” this time providing him with a veritable checklist of the radical agenda of anti-war poetry:

While thus we travelled on I did not fail

To question him of what he had endured

From war and battle and the pestilence.


But again the soldier’s answer fails to produce the “topics of invective” common to other treatments of the figure:

He all the while was in demeanor calm,

Concise in answer: solemn and sublime

He might have seemed, but that in all he said

There was a strange half-absence and a tone

Of weakness and indifference, as of one

Remembering the importance of his theme,

But feeling it no longer.


The soldier’s delivery of his tale, like the fact that “He appeared / To travel without pain” (122-3), undermines the poet’s expectation that he would encounter one of the physically damaged victims of war akin to Robert Merry’s “The Wounded Soldier.” The normal “feeling” response to tales of war is blocked by the poet’s sense that the soldier himself no longer “feels” the importance of his theme, and the encounter leads only to silence (149).

If Wordsworth’s treatment of the returning soldier seems to vitiate the figure’s politically subversive potential (which Wordsworth himself had drawn on in his earlier poetry), the poem continues to trouble as a result of its supernatural suggestions. The skeletal soldier who returns is described as “ghastly” and “ghostly,” maintaining even at the poem’s close “the same ghastly mildness in his look” (51, 125, 163). The soldier’s supernatural presence is most explicitly described in a moment of startling identification with the poet:

 I beheld

With ill-suppressed astonishment his tall

And ghostly figure moving at my side.


The soldier’s ghostly figure here becomes the poet’s doppelgänger, suggesting one reason for his troubling presence in the poem. While a number of critics have seen the soldier in such terms as “a projection of Wordsworth himself, a sort of alter-ego,” as the embodiment of “a previously hidden or repressed aspect of Wordsworth’s psyche,” as “a curious version of himself” and as “Wordsworth’s double,” what has not been stressed is the martial identity of this double (Stephenson 176-7; Brennan 19; Jonathan Wordsworth 12; Magnuson 91). Despite the anti-war emphasis of his early poetry, Wordsworth was a poet with a strong sense of martial identity (Bainbridge 84-5). As Eric C. Walker has commented, in both The Prelude and the larger body of the Recluse texts, “warrior and poet [. . .] are twin selves” (224-40; Spiegelman 13; Moorman 152), and in “Home at Grasmere” Wordsworth guiltily describes his imaginative self-projection to the scene of war:

I cannot at this moment read a tale

Of two brave Vessels matched in deadly fight

And fighting to the death, but I am pleased

More than a wise Man ought to be; I wish,

I burn, I struggle, and in soul am there.


In “Home at Grasmere,” Wordsworth contains and represses his martial identity within a text of poetic dedication which narrates the achievement of his vocation. “The Discharged Soldier,” begun two years earlier, works towards a similar resolution, but with Wordsworth’s ill-suppressed warrior self confronting and troubling his poetic self.[10] Wordsworth’s ultimate placing of his encounter with the soldier at the conclusion to book 4 of The Prelude similarly works to contain the haunting presence of this figure of war, locating the encounter after the famous dawn scene of poetic commitment, when “vows / Were then made” for him and he became “A dedicated Spirit” (1805; 4.341-4).[11] Wordsworth’s poetic vocation is achieved at the cost of his martial identity.

III. “The Sailor’s Mother”: Southey’s and Wordsworth’s Warring Dialogues

Southey’s and Wordsworth’s poetic encounters with “History” in 1798, in the forms of Clio and the discharged soldier, exemplify the developments of their poetic identities, evolving out of and continuing to inform their treatment of the figures of war. Their different trajectories as poets and their contrasting poetic responses to the war can be traced through their poetic dialogue over the next few years. While Southey reviewed Lyrical Ballads for the Critical Review in 1798, more revealing of his response to the collection and to Wordsworth’s poetry of the late 1790s in general were the many poems he wrote in 1798 and 1799 which directly echo and rewrite Wordsworth’s published and unpublished poetry of the period (Smith, “Robert Southey”). As Mary Jacobus has argued, these borrowings should be seen not as plagiarism but as “a deliberate attempt [by Southey] to put right what he had criticized in his review,” restoring the Ballads to the context from which they had been taken, replacing what Jacobus terms their new sophistication, oddity, ambitiousness, imagination, universality and symbolism with topicality, simplicity and familiarity (Jacobus, “Southey’s Debt” 24). Developing Jacobus’s argument, I think Southey’s rewritings of Lyrical Ballads counter what I have been arguing is one of the fundamental manoeuvres that characterizes the development of Wordsworthian Romanticism: the shift from a polemical humanitarian concern with suffering individuals to a psychological interest in their states of mind. Instead, Southey writes history back into Lyrical Ballads.

A good example of Southey’s restoration of history to Wordsworth’s poetry and his implied criticism of Wordsworth’s poetic development is “The Sailor’s Mother,” published in Poems: The Second Volume (1799), which presents an encounter between a traveller and a Woman (206-15). After an opening exchange in which the traveller seeks to “cheer up” the weeping woman, the Wordsworthian nature of this meeting is made quickly apparent when the woman says:

 “Sir I am going

 To see my son at Plymouth, sadly hurt

 In the late action, and in the hospital

 Dying, I fear me, now.”

p. 207

This is an obvious allusion to Wordsworth’s “Old Man Travelling, Animal Tranquillity and Decay, A Sketch,” published in Lyrical Ballads, where the Old Man responds to the narrator’s question with:

 “Sir! I am going many miles to take

 A last leave of my son, a mariner,

 Who from a sea-fight has been brought to Falmouth,

 And there is dying in an hospital.”

lines 17-20

Wordsworth’s poem famously stops at this point, setting up a discomforting contrast between the narrator’s opening vision of the old man and the old man’s own words, and prompted Doctor Burney to comment in his review of Lyrical Ballads for the Monthly Review in June 1799 that “the termination seems pointed against the war” (qtd. in Roe 140).

Wordsworth’s omission of the lines spoken by the old man in versions of the poem after Lyrical Ballads (1805) suggests he came to think that he had gone too far in this specific reference (Gill, William Wordsworth 685n29); for Southey, he had not gone far enough, as he makes clear in “The Sailor’s Mother.” Southey extends the encounter with the traveller to enable the sailor’s mother to give us the full history of her son, recounting his impoverished childhood, his conviction for snaring hares, his choice of “the prison or the ship” and his blinding by a French “fire ball” (Southey, Poems: The Second Volume 210-4). As Christopher Smith has commented, “At the side of Old Man Travelling, which draws back from the particularities of horrific detail, Southey’s poem reads like an item on the agenda of the Cabinet of War” (Smith, “Robert Southey” 24). Southey does not simply seek to replace the Wordsworthian emphasis on “state of mind” with a damning critique of what he calls in a note “our war system” (Southey, Poems: The Second Volume 208n). Rather, he seeks to show how the ideology of “Old England” and the war system have shaped the minds of the figures in the poem. For if the traveller espouses a crassly comforting vision of a protective, grateful country, the sailor’s mother presents a disturbing figure of a woman unable to reconcile a national ideology of glory and sacrifice with the blinding and imminent death of her son—a juxtaposition of the private and public dimensions of war that Southey examined throughout his war poetry. For example, in response to the woman’s statement quoted above, the Traveller replies:

 Perhaps your fears

Make evil worse. Even if a limb be lost

There may be still enough for comfort left

An arm or leg shot off, there’s yet the heart

To keep life warm, and he may live to talk

With pleasure of the glorious fight that maim’d him,

Proud of loss. Old England’s gratitude

Makes the maim’d sailor happy.

pp. 207-8

The traveller speaks like the first issue of The Anti-Jacobin, intolerant of the Jacobin poet’s emphasis on “contusions and amputations” and unregarding of the damage of war to a ludicrous extent. Yet the woman’s account goes beyond these standard horrors:

 ‘Tis not that—

An arm or leg—I could have borne with that

‘Twas not a ball, it was some cursed thing

That bursts and burns that hurt him.

p. 208

This “cursed thing,” identified by a note as “The stink-pots used on board the French ships,” means that “my poor boy has lost his precious eyes, / Burnt out” (209). While the poem may seem to strike a pro-British note at this point—the woman tells the traveller that the stink pots are not used “on board our English ships / It is so wicked!” (208)—as Mary Jacobus argues, it “attacks the complacency of a war-mongering society by juxtaposing the natural despair of the sailor’s mother with the crass consolations offered her by the traveller” (“Southey’s Debt” 29). Such juxtaposition of different responses to war, and especially of a national and public reaction to an individual and private one, was a major technique of Southey’s anti-war poetry, seen in the ironies of “The Battle of Blenheim” and neatly summed up in his notebook sketch for his poem “The Battle of Bosworth. An Eclogue” where he outlines its design as “A woman expecting her husband from that fight, and the utter inconsequence to her of that public event” (Common-Place Book 4.210). Indeed, in his poem “The Victory” Southey adopted one of the formats widely used by anti-war poets in the decade, juxtaposing the celebrations for “yet another day / Of glory for the ruler of the waves!” with the individual suffering caused by one fatality, figured particularly through the grief of the widow (Poems: The Second Volume 174).

“The Sailor’s Mother” works not only through this form of juxtaposition, but also through its parody of the figure of the intermediary that constituted one of Wordsworth’s major contributions to the poetry of suffering (Averill, passim). The Anti-Jacobin had, of course, famously parodied Southey’s own poetic persona as “The Friend of Humanity” in “The Needy Knife Grinder” (The Anti-Jacobin 1: 21-2). Southey uses the eclogue form for the same effect, making the traveller, the spokesman for “Old England,” seem just as ludicrous and removed from the realities he encounters as The Anti-Jacobin suggested the poet himself was. If Wordsworth develops the figure of the intermediary as part of his shift to a poetry of the mind, Southey frequently uses this figure to dramatize an inadequate response to the suffering he encounters, as in the conclusion of “The Sailor’s Mother” in which the traveller offers the woman easy reassurance:

 Well! Well! take comfort

He will be taken care of if he lives;

And should you lose your child, this is a country

Where the brave sailor never leaves a parent

To weep for him in want.

p. 214

But these words of comfort are met by a response that shifts the terms of reference and suggests a gap between the traveller and the sailor’s mother as wide as that between the poet and the Old Man Travelling:

 Sir I shall want

No succour long. In the common course of years

I soon must be at rest, and ’tis a comfort

When grief is hard upon me to reflect

It leads me to that rest the sooner.

pp. 214-15

The poem ends with the mother going to seek not charity or relief but death which, rather than glory or the nation, offers the only comfort that she can find.

Mary Jacobus has acknowledged the polemical force of Southey’s rewritten versions of Lyrical Ballads, but in arguing that he replaces individuality with the “acceptable humanitarian commonplaces of the time” she fails to register the sustained radicalism of Southey’s poetic output in the late 1790s (“Southey’s Debt” 28). As The Anti-Jacobin’s attacks illustrate, Southey’s poetry was anything but “acceptable,” unlike Lyrical Ballads, which Jane Stabler has argued was received in 1798 as “a soundly reactionary volume,” even by The Anti-Jacobin Review (217). If other critics have found it easy to dismiss these works by Southey, I think at least one contemporary reader appreciated the power of Southey’s critique of Wordsworth, and this was Wordsworth himself. For in March 1802, the month before Wordsworth began the reconstruction of himself as a public poet through the Miltonic sonnet, he wrote his own “The Sailor’s Mother,” a text which not only recalls “Old Man Travelling” but also answers Southey’s reworking of it. This poem follows the basic structure of “Old Man Travelling,” with the narrator’s description of the sailor’s mother followed by her response to his questioning. Her account reads like the next episode in a now familiar story:

 “I had a Son, who many a day

 Sailed on the seas; but he is dead;

 In Denmark he was cast away;

 And I have been as far as Hull, to see

What clothes he might have left, or other property.”

lines 20-4

Whereas Southey had maintained the use of the female war victim characteristic of so much anti-war poetry of earlier in the decade, Wordsworth’s version reads less like the late Lyrical Ballad it is often take to be (Johnston 556) and more like an anticipation of the political sonnets he would start writing in the following month. He describes the sailor’s mother in the symbolic language that he would shortly use for English republican heroes, for Westminster Bridge and for England herself:

 A Woman in the road I met,

 Not old, though something past her prime:

 Majestic in her person, tall and straight;

 And like a Roman matron’s was her mien and gait.

 The ancient Spirit is not dead;

 Old times, thought I, are breathing there;

 Proud was I that my country bred

 Such strength, a dignity so fair [. . .].


Here the sailor’s mother fulfils exactly the function that the “good old cause” of English republicanism will serve in the sonnets, as is illustrated by Philip Martin’s description of her: “The sailors mother steps out of the past, and is used by the narrator as an anachronism, a means by which past glories are evoked and present decadence or degeneration is implied” (76). Unlike “Old Man Travelling,” here the narrator’s impression of the sailor’s mother is reinforced by her own account, her possession of her son’s song bird reading like an act of memorialization that maintains his spirit and even suggests itself as a symbol for the transmutation of war’s casualties into song. Refiguring the sailor’s mother for the period of the invasion threat, Wordsworth rededicates himself (not uncritically) to his country and to his sense of historical vision, both of which underpin his developing poetic identity. And he does so by reappropriating and rewriting the text by Southey that had attacked his shift away from this poetic model. Moreover, only a few months after he had again been working on The Prelude, “The Sailor’s Mother” reads like his version of Southey’s “Was it for this [. . .]?” poem—in place of the majestic figure of Clio, he offers the sailor’s mother, “majestic in her person,” who reawakens his sense of the “ancient Spirit” and embodies the “old times” of history.

If the retreat from history figured in the opening of Southey’s poem has normally been seen as the major narrative of the formation of canonical Romanticism, I have tried to show how Southey offers an important alternative model and to suggest how the rest of the poem’s structure with its reassertion of history is played out in Wordsworth’s poetic career. But “History” and The Prelude also illustrate another crucial element of these writers’ response to historical and vocational crisis during the war: the redefinition of poetry as a manly pursuit after its increasing feminization in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. The phrase “Was it for this [. . .]” reveals both poems to be driven by a vocational crisis that is also a crisis of masculinity. As correspondence on The Prelude in the TLS initiated by Jonathan Wordsworth has established, the rhetorical device, though with classical precedents, was available from Milton’s Samson Agonistes where, on beholding his son at the climax of his troubles, Manora exclaims: “For this did the angel twice descend? For this / Ordained thy nurture holy, as of a plant” (qtd. in Woolford 627). These lines, possibly filtered through Thomson, Shenstone and Pope, could have been drawn on by the two poets, with Samson’s failure to fulfil his divine mission being rewritten in terms of the crises of their own poetic missions. Moreover, as Howard Erskine-Hill has shown, one source for the phrase is Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (Erskine-Hill 1094)—a favourite of both Southey and Wordsworth (Curry, Southey 6; Moorman 100)—in which the good sorceress Melissa rebukes Ruggiero for having become an unmanly figure like the beautiful youth Adonis or the self-castrated Atys rather than a heroic conqueror like Alexander, Caesar or Scipio. In John Harrington’s rendering of 1591, the passage begins as follows:

 Was it for this, that I in youth thee fed,

 With marrow of the beares and lyons fell?

 That I through caves and deserts have thee led [. . .].

qtd. in Erskine-Hill 1094

As Erskine-Hill points out, the prominent place given to heroic story in The Prelude’s extended preamble suggests that Wordsworth had this passage in mind. Similarly, Southey’s muse Clio particularly resembles the sorceress Melissa. In their use of the phrase “Was it for this [. . .]?” in “History” and The Prelude, the two poets draw a parallel between themselves and Ruggiero confronted with a choice between these representative roles. And both poets respond to the suggestions of their failures to fulfil their ordained mission and the highest masculine role by presenting their poetic identities as heroic and manly—attributes defined through a choice of worthy subject matter, a narrative of growth into manhood and a fitting audience. Wordsworth seeks to be spurred on “to honourable toil” (Prelude 1.452-3), while Southey defines his historical verse against the poesy produced in the feminized space of the myrtle bower. Like Wordsworth, who presents himself as “in manhood now mature” (1.452), Southey’s growth from boyhood to manhood will be completed with the assumption of the role for which he has been chosen. And if Wordsworth changes his ideal reader from Dorothy in his early verse to Coleridge in The Prelude (2.1), Southey in “History” resists the temptation to write feminized poesy for a female audience—“strains so sorrowful sweet, / That love-sick maids may weep upon thy page” (18-19)—aiming instead to produce poetry worthy of a readership of the great men of “History”:

[. . .] let that spirit fill

Thy song, and it shall teach thee, boy! to raise

Strains such as CATO had not scorn’d to hear,

As SIDNEY in his hall of fame may love.


If Southey’s “History” questions major elements of what we now think of as canonical or high Romanticism, nevertheless it contributes to one of the most sustained cultural constructions of the period: that of the Poet as “a man speaking to men” (Wordsworth, Preface 603).