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The publication of Thalaba the Destroyer in 1801 marked a shift in Robert Southey’s publishing oeuvre for several reasons. First, it was his initial attempt in an ambitious project to depict all the mythologies of the world in epic form (The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey [LC] 3: 351; Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey [Selections] 1: 163). Second, the poem provided evidence of Southey’s growing political orthodoxy. By the late 1790s much of Southey’s youthful radical fervour was evaporating as a quieter mood of domesticity came over him, but he had not yet become the reactionary apostate of his accusatory contemporaries. His first visit to Portugal (1795-6) had provided the basis for much of his later conservatism, which was initiated by a strong reaction to what he perceived as the religious despotism of Roman Catholicism in that country. Southey was now of the opinion that the English constitutional monarchy and the Anglican Church were superior to other models of polity and religion abroad. Even the ideals of the French Revolution, a political model that he had particularly admired in his youth, he felt were unravelling into corruption and tyranny. This was a transitional period for Southey; he had not totally abandoned his earlier radicalism, but he could observe that his former political hot-headedness was being replaced by a “sombre assumption of gravity” (New Letters of Robert Southey [NL] 1: 110). Letters written while Thalaba was being composed show him to have been hovering between two positions. On the one hand he was critical of British policy in regard to France and supportive of Bonaparte: “I do not hesitate in pronouncing him the greatest man that events have called into action since Alexander of Macedon” (NL 1: 221-2). On the other hand he said during his second visit to Portugal (in 1801 when he finished Thalaba) that being abroad “makes an Englishman proud, and [you] will easily conceive that I am all Anglicized already” (NL 1: 224-5).

Thalaba was still informed by Southey’s quest for political enlightenment and a way for society to progress, but this text came into existence on the cusp of his changing views. This article argues that Southey’s more conservative approach to the values of his own culture (which he was at odds with for so long) was formed by his responses to the Orientalist material of his poem. Having more empathy now with the British model of polity and religion, his investigation of other cultures as material for Thalaba only reinforced these views. In fact the abatement of Southey’s radicalism during this period relates directly to his research into the customs and religious practices of other cultures for Thalaba and Madoc (1805), thus showing how Southey’s conservatism, and his later overt nationalism, was developed through this genre. Always repressing English mythological and historical themes, Southey preferred to choose aspects of other cultures and countries as the setting for his imperialist epics, and often he employed this foreign material to make an unfavourable comparison with what he considered to be the best cultural values of his own, British, society. I will therefore examine Thalaba the Destroyer within the context of other Orientalist texts in order to reveal the ways in which it conforms to, but also reacts against, this strand of literature to which it contributes. This will highlight the paradoxical relationship that Southey had with the Orientalist material that he used, valuing the information it contained as a platform for his own Oriental romance, but more often than not denigrating the beliefs and customs contained within as they compared unfavourably, in his eyes, to Western examples.

Even a brief description of the plot of Thalaba reveals the paradoxical elements of the poem. It is the story of a young Arabian man’s quest to find the murderer of his family and avenge their deaths. This entails Southey’s hero renouncing human love until his quest ends and he is united in heaven with the object of his love, Oneiza. Thalaba has many trials to go through in the meantime against forces of evil in the form of wicked sorcerers, who from their subterranean stronghold attempt to abrogate God’s power. Thalaba is not simply constructed as a personal revenge plot because the retribution the hero seeks is divinely inspired and predetermined by God. As Southey said of this device, “It must be remembered that the most absolute fatalism is the main-spring of Mohammed’s religion, and therefore the principle is always referred to in the poem” (Selections 1: 214). Nevertheless, as I will show, the poem contains many conventional Christian aspects, as Southey combined his knowledge of Islam with his own religious precepts to construct an Orientalist fantasy rather than provide a realistic reflection of the Islamic faith or Arabian life. Southey’s poem is therefore a curious mixture of his responses to Islam, a Christian quest, and an Oriental tale of tyranny and magic (such as the Arabian Nights and William Beckford’s Vathek). This conglomeration forms a text that comments on the Oriental world in order to define Southey’s own principles—which he increasingly considered to be “British” values.

I. Creative Sources

If Thalaba breaks away from Southey’s earlier, more radical narrative poetry—Wat Tyler (written 1794) and Joan of Arc (1796) —because of Southey’s increasingly ambiguous political allegiances, what were the creative sources and influences for Thalaba? Frank Sayers’s use of unrhymed, irregular verse and mythological subject matter in his Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1790) impressed Southey enough to make him want to write his own “mythopoesis” (Bernhardt-Kabisch 81-5). Another earlier influence on his plan to write about the mythologies of the world was Bernard Picart’s Ceremonies et coutumes religeuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723), revealing Southey’s comparativist interest in world cultures. In order to create Thalaba, Southey read poetry, travel accounts and ethnological descriptions of the Middle East and Africa, and by incorporating these texts in his writing, his narrative poem became a synthesis of all of them.[1]

Other sources for Thalaba were literary representations of the Orient that were becoming popular in Europe in the eighteenth century, such as the Arabian Nights Entertainments, made available through the French translation of Antoine Galland (Les mille et une nuits). These stories were a boyhood influence for Southey, and the intervention of magical “machinery” into the human world which they depict can be seen in Thalaba. Southey was also familiar with the Arabian Tales; or, A Continuation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments (1788-99; Chavis), which is the most obvious source for Thalaba, as Southey mentions himself in the ‘Preface to the Fourth Edition’ of his Poetical Works: “In the continuation of the Arabian Tales, the Domdaniel is mentioned; a seminary for evil magicians, under the roots of the sea. From this seed the present romance has grown” (4: xv). The Arabian Tales, from which the story of the “Domdaniel” comes, were claimed to be translations from the Arabic by Dom Chavis and M. Cazotte. A large part of one of the volumes of these stories is devoted to a magician called Maugraby whose evil operations emanate from:the formidable Dom-Daniel of Tunis, that school of magic, whose rulers tyrannise over all the wicked spirits that desolate the earth, and which in the den where those monsters are engendered that have over-run the country of Africa (Chavis 4: 308).

William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) was another oriental tale that Southey admired. He believed that Thalaba “compares more fairly with ‘Vathek’ than with any existing work, and I think may stand by its side for invention” (Robberds 1: 371). These texts were therefore influential in the creation of Thalaba, but there were two other important creative progenitors that were especially significant in forming the design of Southey’s “Arabian tale.” The first of these influences that I will examine is Walter Savage Landor’s Gebir (1798).

Over the summer of 1799 Southey was reading and reviewing Landor’s poem for the Critical Review (Rev. of Gebir 29-39). In his opinion it contained “some of the most exquisite poetry in the language” (LC 2: 24) The selections Southey made for his review provide a potted discussion of imperialism, incorporating sovereign authority and responsibility, aspects that he would apply to Thalaba. While the negative results of the imperialist venture that are depicted in the poem have led to it being read as “an anti-colonialist fable” by Marilyn Butler (Butler 411), the poem’s message is nevertheless ambiguous, because Landor also praises Napoleon—“A mortal man above all mortal praise” (Landor 60)—who was at this time “sweeping through northern Italy” and would go on to invade Egypt in the same year that Gebir was published (Sharafuddin 3). The ambivalence to imperial politics that Landor displays was one shared by Southey and many other “Jacobins” in celebrating Napoleon’s achievements while rejecting imperialist strategies.

In Thalaba, Southey employs a political, as well as poetical, agenda similar to Landor’s. For both poets the occult is a central theme, with the Orient portrayed as “a land of incantation” (Landor 18). Southey also includes the story of the destruction of an ancient civilization in Thalaba (the “Adites”—in Gebir, the “Gadites”) and portrays ruined cities in Thalaba’s wanderings. Southey, like Landor, comments on tyrannical pride and imperial rule, and Thalaba also visits the underworld—which as in Gebir underpins the narrative of events on earth. Both men use the Orient as an imaginative space in which to discuss contemporary European politics—detached from criticism or censorship—and to comment on political, and in Southey’s case social, morality. The major difference between the two texts however is that while Landor’s text was not framed by any recognizable religious system, as his poem was set in a pre-Christian and pre-Islamic period, Southey made the Islamic religion a central theme of Thalaba. Why that came about can be seen in a further influence on Thalaba that arose from Southey’s renewed friendship with Coleridge (after their disagreement over the failed Pantisocracy project).

After their reconciliation through mutual friends, Southey and Coleridge spent August and September 1799 touring the west of England. Here they made several attempts at collaborative writing, “at the same table” once more, in their long ballad “The Devil’s Walk” and their plan to write a poem based on the life of Mohammed (Selections 1: 78). In July of that year Southey revealed his interest in George Sale’s Koran (1734), saying in a letter, “Of the few books with me I am most engaged by the Koran: it is dull and full of repetitions, but there is an interesting simplicity in the tenets it inculcates” (Selections 1: 77). Southey intended to use his Koranic researches in his poem “Mohammed,” but the idea was abandoned, leaving only an extract that was published much later.[2] The four extant pages of “Mohammed” follow very closely the details of the prophet’s life given by George Sale in “A Preliminary Discourse” to his translation of the Koran, showing that Southey obviously approved of Sale’s ethnological intent to make the “law of Mohammed” more accessible to his European readers (Sale 3). Southey’s similar desire formed the impulse behind his plan to write “Mohammed.” But Southey’s plan to write a biographical poem based on the life of the Islamic prophet was also crucial to Thalaba. He was writing the two poems at the same time, and the problems that he reveals himself to have had with “Mohammed”—and which led him to abandon it—are also the problems that haunt the text of his “Arabian Romance,” as I will show by examining Southey’s responses to the Koran.[3]

The first edition of Sale’s Koran was published in 1734 and reveals a guiding principle of Enlightenment relativism: “To be acquainted with the various laws and constitutions of civilized nations, especially of those who flourish in our own time, is, perhaps the most useful part of knowledge” (Sale 3). Mohammed Sharafuddin points out how committed Sale was to his text: “So striking was his knowledge of and identification with Islam, in an age of dogma and prejudice, that he was known in some conservative circles by the title “half-Mussulman” for his positive view of the Koran” (xxix). Where Southey would find the Koran full of “dull tautology” (Thalaba 1: 4), Sale was enthusiastic, finding the style in which it was written to be “generally beautiful and fluent,” even becoming “sublime and magnificent” at times (61). However the stumbling block Sale had with the Koran (and which he shared with other Westerners) was the belief of the Islamic faithful that it constituted the word of God, transmitted through his mouthpiece, the divinely inspired Mohammed. Sale refers to this as an “imposture” on Mohammed’s part (2), and often in his “Preliminary Discourse” terms it a “pretence” (62-3). As Edward Said points out, Christian critics have often constructed Mohammed as a fraudulent “other” for Jesus Christ, the inspired prophet of their own belief system (60). This led to an ambiguity in Sale’s position in presenting his text to the British public. While he argued for the study of Islam and against those who were hostile without knowledge, he could not prevent his text from being imbued with Western scepticism.

Sale’s approach to the Koran was one that Southey inherited. He too had a comparativist interest in other cultures and religions, but he also questioned the prophet’s motives: “What was Mohammed? self-deceived, or knowingly a deceiver? If an enthusiast, the question again recurs, wherein does real inspiration differ from mistaken?” (Selections 1: 77). This problem could not be resolved, and there was to be a further complication with using the Islamic prophet as the hero of a poem:

But of Mohammed, there is one fact which in my judgement stamps the imposter—he made too free with the wife of Zeid, and very speedily had a verse of the Koran revealed to allow him to marry her. The vice may be attributed to his country and constitution; but the dispensation was the work of a scoundrel imposing upon fools.

Selections 1:77

The fact that Mohammed committed adultery with another man’s wife and then licensed his act in the Koran was outrageous to Southey, who saw sexual desire as part of that “vice” particularly endemic to such a “country and constitution.” For Southey even if Mohammed’s act in taking another man’s wife could be (reluctantly) understood in terms of racial or cultural difference, nevertheless his position as a religious leader should have placed him above secular physical desire. Southey does two things here: first he treats lechery as an Arabian vice, and second he overlays the morality of his own culture and religion onto Islam.

In writing “Mohammed,” Southey faced the problem of the gap between the poetic sincerity he needed to invest in his text and his source material. Such a poem would make Islam the central belief system in his project, as well as hold the prophet up as a hero, in spite of his having been, in Southey’s eyes, an immoral “imposter.”[4] As Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch points out, the project was abandoned because Southey “could not suspend his disbelief sufficiently to create Mohammed as the hero of a serious work” (Bernhardt-Kabisch 84). Unable to empathize with the figurehead of another faith and an alien culture, Southey transferred all his research on the Koran and Arabian society into Thalaba—leaving him free to explore Islamic belief, but also to syncretize it with what he valued from the Protestant religion. In this poem Southey would not have to distinguish between real or misguided faith in order to justify his hero’s beliefs as he felt he would have had to do in “Mohammed.”

In Thalaba, therefore, the hero’s central mission takes the form of an Islamic jihad—in the sense of the personal struggle of an individual believer against evil and persecution—and the quest of the Western Christian tradition. This is signposted by Southey’s choice of the word “romance” for his text, implying the influences of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485)—and his telling of the quest for the Holy Grail—and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), one of Southey’s favourite texts. In fact Southey prefaced the first book of Thalaba in editions after 1801 with a quotation from The Faerie Queene that reiterates the idea of justified vengeance, highlighting it as a Christian motif as well as an Islamic one.[5] Because the hero of Thalaba is a fictional construct with no Islamic precedent, Southey could avoid proving the verity of his beliefs and simply rely on the dramatic effects of intuitive faith. Southey’s poem becomes a Protestant epic (like The Faerie Queene) as much by this omission of stated religious tenets—and therefore the authorial assumption of a shared belief system with his readership—as anything else. In Thalaba Southey overlaid his reading of European commentaries on Arabian life with his own version of a spiritual quest, featuring a pious hero who could never be considered to be an impostor and who is virtuous to the point of prudishness. That his poem owed as much to his Christian beliefs and morality as his Oriental source material was not strange or indefensible for Southey.

II. Southey’s “Patchwork”

In writing Thalaba, Southey was, like William Beckford (and Samuel Henley) in Vathek, modernizing the established genre of Oriental tales by effectively incorporating two texts within a single framework.[6]Thalaba’s obvious text is the long narrative poem providing an Oriental fantasy story, which could still exist without annotation in an unanchored, ahistorical and geographically unspecific location—as did the first edition of Gebir, which was produced without any notes to the text.[7] The second text is formed by Southey’s impulse as a cultural historian to append footnotes to his poem (as with his other long narrative poems), providing a synthesis of all his reading on the subject. The notes therefore comprise a general survey (or “history,” in the looser, eighteenth-century meaning of the term) of the customs, religious practices, climate, geography, history and natural history of the modern Arabs—limited only by their relevance to the poem. Arguably the factual information of the notes was made more accessible and digestible for a general European readership when presented in this way, promoting knowledge of other cultures. But rather than being enriched by this process, Thalaba became more problematic because Southey, a keen and able history writer, tried to combine both genres within one publication. Therefore Southey made the loose associations within his fictional text fit his “factual” material, or what is more likely, fictionalized in his poem his documentary accounts—admittedly constructions themselves—in a “method of writing his poems to fit his footnotes” as H. N. Fairchild shows (205).

Francis Jeffrey, in his well-known review of Thalaba for the Edinburgh Review of 1802, commented on the poem being a “patchwork” of other texts. His pronouncement that Southey’s poem was “little else than his commonplace book versified” is perceptively apposite (Madden 83-4). While Southey could be applauded for making his Oriental fantasy more “realistic” and more accessible to his reading public, in fact he was more culpable for making sweeping assertions, or imprecise associations, between fictional events and documented social and religious practices. Moreover, Southey’s universalist approach often elided specific differences, producing one homogenous vision that combined pre-Islamic and Islamic religious beliefs, ancient and modern social practices, and ignored geographical disparities in his poem. He then gave his fiction the credence of fact by “cherry-picking” from his sources those elements that he found interesting or peculiar or that fitted his own moral code. It is unfortunate that Southey was not more liberally open-minded in accepting the differences in culture and religion that he found. As William Haller says of Southey’s motives, “All his reading was done, [. . .] not to enlarge his own spirit, but merely to confirm his preconceptions about life, and to condemn what disagreed with them” (258). One of the most obvious manifestations of this is the way in which Southey chooses the Islamic faith and Arabian culture as the central theme of his story and then denigrates his subject matter at every opportunity in his notes. Southey’s awareness of his moral responsibility to his readers made him reluctant to unwittingly seduce them into an unmediated appreciation of the positive aspects of an alien culture. His notes therefore counterbalance the stimulating visions of his poem.

Nigel Leask comments on the “poetic affect; namely, the actual discrepancy, rather than desired unity, between poetic text and annotation” in Thalaba (168). In his discussion, which compares eighteenth-century panoramic images to the exotic poetry of Southey and Thomas Moore, Leask goes on to say that

the absorptive pull of the exotic visual image or allusion [. . .] is constantly checked and qualified by a globalizing, descriptive discourse which draws the viewer/reader away from dangerous proximity to the image, in order to inscribe him/her in a position of epistemological power; nothing other than the commanding vision of imperialist objectivity.


Certainly from a presentational aspect, the first edition of Southey’s poem was continually “checked and qualified” by his notes; as he recognized himself, “There is an unpleasant effect by the manner of placing the notes; for many pages have only a line of text, and so the eye runs faster than the fingers can turn them over” (Selections 2: 102). Thereby the “eye” that desires to enjoy the “exotic visual image” of Southey’s Arabian romance is restrained by “imperialist objectivity.” I will consider these issues by examining the opening book of Thalaba in order to discover Southey’s motives in castigating the subject matter of his “Arabian tale” despite using it in his poem to illustrate his moral and religious tenets.

Thalaba begins in an unspecific desert setting at night where two figures are wandering—the young Thalaba and his widowed mother, Zeinab. The rest of Thalaba’s family have been killed by the evil sorcerers who inhabit the underground caverns of the Domdaniel, and Thalaba angrily questions why God should have allowed this to happen. Zeinab rebukes Thalaba for his lack of faith in God, saying, “He gave, he takes away,” a phrase linked by Southey’s footnote to these words in the “Book of Job” (Thalaba 1: 3). Southey’s notes include several passages from the Bible which while aiming at relativity, provide a Christian frame for the “Islamic” text, with Southey claiming that “an allusion to the Old Testament is no ways improper in a Mohammedan” (Thalaba 1: 119). These references would provide a familiarity for Southey’s European readers by expressing “a feeling of religion in that language with which our religious ideas are connected” (my italics; Thalaba 1: 4). However these more familiar points of reference could be accused of nudging out, or even negating, the less familiar aspects of Arabian society and Koranic material in his text. Similarly Southey’s inclusion of material in his footnotes from Western commentators (such as Sale, Carsten Niebuhr and Constantin Volney) may have dialogically enriched his text but also interposed European (often critical) viewpoints into his material, preventing the reader from engaging fully with the Islamic content.

Southey’s footnote to the words “He gave, he takes away” points out that the resignation of this statement is “particularly inculcated by Mohammed, and of all his precepts it is that which his followers have best observed: it is even the vice of the East” (Thalaba 1: 4). As the word “Islam” means “peace through surrender or submission to God” and it demands that a Muslim “surrenders himself unconditionally to the divine will” (Norcliffe 238), this prompted Southey to make an Islamic “vice” of a Christian virtue. While he admired (Christian) resignation himself—and his hero is the model of such virtue, with his unwavering faith against all odds—it seems that the idea when applied to the East is linked to a common stereotype of excessive Oriental passivity. Therefore what seems like an autonomous desire for revenge on Thalaba’s part is channelled into a holy crusade against the Domdanielite magicians, by being presented as part of that “absolute fatalism” or resignation to God’s will which is “the main-spring of Mohammed’s religion” (Selections 1: 214).

As Thalaba swears to “hunt” his father’s murderer “thro’ the earth,” the dialogue is interrupted by the appearance of “a stately palace” (Thalaba 1: 6-7). Southey was intrigued by the story of the Adites—and their ruler, the oriental despot Shedad, who built an incomparable palace in the desert—as his lengthy footnotes testify. His information came from Sale’s Koran and “Preliminary Discourse,” and Barthélemy D’Herbelot’s Biliotheque Orientale (1776), as well as Gebir.[8] Shedad’s palace is described as an artificially fabricated edifice that symbolizes secular power and challenges God’s authority. Southey’s notes incorporate the comments of Orientalist authorities, providing a discussion of Eastern arts, methods of building, ornamentation and literature. While Southey’s hyperbolic description builds a magnificent palace in his poem, he comments drily in his notes, “I have ornamented his palace less profusely than the oriental writers who describe it,” suggesting that his own description is governed by Western reserve and self-restraint and that he has preserved his text from the extravagant flourishes of Orientalists (Thalaba 1: 44). While indulging in such “ornamentation” himself in his poem, he can qualify it by referring to a yet more extreme example. Southey further destabilizes these “excessive” descriptions of the palace with Western cynicism: “A waste of ornament and labour characterises all the works of the Orientalists” (Thalaba 1: 9). The lavish descriptions of the building are as much a “waste” as the “labour” expended on building it. This moralizing, tendentious voice of the captious critic is one that Southey built into his footnotes. While he could purge his fiction of the excessive ostentation of Eastern influences if he chose, his scholarly desire to include footnotes (exemplifying these faults) undermined his intention and therefore could not stand without comment. This is the reason for the dichotomy in his text between the poem and the footnotes. His fiction retains those aspects of the culture he admired, while his notes (over which, as direct quotations, he has little control) had to be moderated by the voice of Western probity. Southey further complicates this position in the preface to Thalaba, where he speaks of the form of his poem as suiting the content because it is “the Arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale” (Thalaba 1: vii). It is precisely because such ornamentation was attractive and may have tempted him into indulgence that the abstemious Southey felt he needed to suppress that element in his text.

III. Bedouin Arabs

However, not all of Southey’s depictions of the Middle East were negative. His reading of travel narratives and Arabian literature provided him with a model for the cultural values in the Bedouin Arabs that he approved of and wanted to publicize. Among these texts was The Moallakat; or, Seven Arabian Poems Which Were Suspended on the Temple at Mecca (1782), which Southey drew on for its lyrical descriptions of Bedouin life.[9] These poems were translated from Arabic and published by William Jones, known as “Persian Jones” at this stage in his life for his interest in Arabic language and literature.[10] Jones attempted to raise the prestige of this literature in the West with his translations, and by drawing attention to the uniquely graceful imagery and language of the poetry—which he claimed, in his Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations (1772), was due to inspiration provided by the “sublime” and “beautiful” “natural objects, with which the Arabs are perpetually conversant” (322). Michael Franklin, editor of a volume of Jones’s works, says,

In the Mu’allaqat Hellenistic tradition is fully assimilated to a specifically Bedouin mentality, and these poems represent the supreme art of the herding and hunting nomad. This outburst of poetry in its unexpected confidence and maturity seemed to confirm Jones’s contention that the pastoral genre was more alive in the Yemen than in Europe. Despite the difficulty of these poems, Jones was fascinated by their wild beauty, their vigorous and precise imagery, and felt that they should be introduced to a modern European audience.

Sir William Jones 189

Southey would have admired these poems for the same reasons that Jones did, for they were expressive of what he perceived to be the simple, harsh but also rewarding lives of the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East.

Southey’s interest in the lives of the Bedouins guided his reading of Orientalist texts and provided him with material to draw on for Thalaba’s life in the desert with his Bedouin family:

It was the wisdom and the will of Heaven

That in a lonely tent had cast

 The lot of Thalaba.

There might his soul develop best

 Its strengthening energies;

There might he from the world

 Keep his heart pure and uncontaminate,

 Till at the written hour he should be found

 Fit servant of the Lord, without a spot.

Thalaba 1: 130

Southey’s Bedouins provide him with the image of the “noble savage” (that repository figure that he sought in all cultures as the holder of the virtues he valued) to provide a suitable upbringing and lifestyle for his hero. Southey extracted examples from Constantin Volney’s Travels through Syria and Egypt (1788) that would provide a moral framework for Thalaba’s development and then built on these remarks in his fiction. Volney’s text included a long section on the customs and manners of the Bedouins in which he admires their simple and austere lifestyle. The Bedouins “are no strangers to property; but it has none of that selfishness which the increase of the imaginary wants of luxury has given it among polished nations,” and therefore “they are less exposed to temptations which might corrupt and debase them” (Volney 1: 413-4). The harshness of their environment imbues them with a moral purity not found in civilized European countries. Western commentators readily perceived the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouins as one of independence and resistance to the corruption of political systems, particularly those of the Ottoman Empire. Tilar Mazzeo says that in the Romantic period the Bedouin Arabs were conceived to be:

sprung from the “original stock” of Moses and his people, they represented the golden age of Eastern antiquity. In this respect, the Bedouins were viewed by Western travellers in much the same way as the native Greeks were imagined—as positive representations of Europe’s own cultural origins in Asia.

Mazzeo ix-x

These aspects impressed Southey, and he promulgated them in Thalaba, contributing to a romanticized view of the Bedouins that has lasted into the twentieth century.

Compared to the oriental potentate Shedad—as well as other examples of Eastern despotism that Southey includes in Thalaba—the Bedouin “Prince” is modest, pastoral, and egalitarian: a model ruler. Southey also includes Volney’s point that the Bedouin people live their lives as Homer had described them and as can be found in Genesis. This gives the Bedouins a historical line that joins them to recognizable Christian and classical traditions for Southey’s Western readers. It also relates to the work of Orientalists, and particularly—through Jones’s scholarly investigation of Oriental languages and his suggestion that the European, classical and Sanskrit languages came from an ancient Persian language—the idea that Greek and Roman civilization and even the Christian religion itself had Oriental origins (Sir William Jones xxii-xxiii).

Thalaba’s Bedouin family live a simple pastoral life, dependent on their environment and therefore close to nature. By choosing the Bedouins to focus on, and presenting their existence as lonely and isolated, Southey empties the Middle East of nearly all other forms of population so that they become the central focus of his fiction, apart from stereotypically villainous sorcerers and despots. This has important consequences on his text as he portrays a Manichean orient divided absolutely between “good” Bedouins and “evil” sorcerers and potentates (and the passive Orientals they rule over). Large centres of population (as will be shown) feature as examples of the “degraded” state of Islam or as the ruined remnants of empty cities.

Why Southey concentrates on his heroic Bedouins can be understood in John Barrell’s terms of reference to “this/that/ and the other” or Gayatri Spivak’s distinction, which Barrell draws on, between a “self-consolidating other” and an “absolute other,” whereby subjects or writers constructs themselves in terms of what is similar to them and what is different (Barrell 10; Spivak qtd. in Barrell 10). That which is more nearly the same is identified with, whereas that which is unacceptably different is pushed further away. In Southey’s text, as in other Western constructions of Asia,

There is a “this”, and there is a something hostile to it, something which lies, almost invariably, to the east; but there is an East beyond that East, where something lurks which is equally threatening to both, and which enables or obliges them to reconcile their differences.

Barrell 10-11

Therefore Southey endows his Bedouins with those qualities he admires, portraying them as “self-consolidating others,” whereas his “absolute other” is depicted at various times (as in other representations of “Orientals”) as passive, tyrannical, licentious and duplicitous. Southey had of course recently seen British monarchs in these terms, and he is detaching himself from his radical youth, yet still employing the language of radicalism in order to posit a further, distant and therefore less dangerous other.

The division between a “self-consolidating other” and an “absolute other” also occurs in one of Southey’s letters where he questions “To what is the great superiority of Europeans over Orientalists attributable and the stationariness or even retrogression of the Orientalists?” (NL 1: 216). Southey’s letter first focuses on “Persia” in order to consider whether Oriental “retrogression” is attributable to climate or religion. In the end he opts for polygamy as the cause of it:

Perhaps Polygamy is the radical evil. The degradation of females in consequence of it is obvious, and its perpetual excitement is probably the chief cause of the voluptuousness attributed to climate, hence premature debility, hence a brutalized nature, hence habits of domestic despotism, and the inference that what is best in a family, is best in a state.

In Arabia women are not slaves, and the Arabs are mostly monogamous. Here then are a people under a burning climate, unenslaved, by no means remarkable for voluptuousness, and among whom I have never heard of the crime, elsewhere universal in the East, which is probably another scyon from the same root.

NL 1: 216

Southey therefore makes a distinction between the moderate and monogamous Arabs, to which his Bedouin family belong, and the “voluptuousness” (of which he implies sodomy is a result) and “brutalized nature” of the “Persians.” In order to make sense of why the West is superior Southey divides his subject up into two distinct groups, one that is a model more nearly “like” his own society and therefore presumably redeemable (but still “other”), and one that is very different and because of its sexual practices is an “absolute other,” and therefore justifiably inferior.

IV. Islam

Southey’s method of “othering” is also applied to the way in which religious faith is presented in Thalaba. This is a more central theme in Thalaba than in any of Southey’s other poems, and Thalaba is thus an important text for assessing his beliefs. Southey describes the Bedouin family at prayer:

 Before their tent the mat is spread;

 The Old Man’s Solemn voice

 Intones the holy Book.

 What if beneath no lamp-illumined dome,

Its marble walls bedeck’d with flourish’d truth,

 Azure and gold adornment? sinks the word

 With deeper influence from the Imam’s voice,

 Where in the day of congregation, crowds

 Perform the duty-task?

 Their Father is their Priest,

 The Stars of Heaven their point of prayer,

 And the blue Firmament

 The glorious Temple, where they feel

 The present Deity.

Thalaba 1: 143-7

This passage makes a direct contrast between the religious faith of the multitude of Islamic worshippers—the “crowds” who “Perform the duty-task” confined within the “marble walls” of the “dome” or mosque, with its “Azure and gold adornment”—and the family’s simple act of prayer. Certain images Southey chooses in his description of conventional Islamic worship ring oddly. For instance, the “Imam’s voice” seeks to “influence” the congregation—the word influence often has negative associations in that one who influences can be perceived as persuading against the will of another. The idea of “flourish’d truth” is also strange. It could mean that “truth” thrives there, but it actually relates to the ornamentation of the walls of the mosque, which as we know Southey considered to be a “waste.” In the mosque the “truth” adorning the walls is embellished (or exaggerated), not just the writing. Lastly this religious service is a “duty-task,” not offered freely in the way that the Bedouin family offer prayers under the “blue Firmament,” their “glorious Temple.” Consequently the latter “feel / The present Deity,” unlike the “crowds” who only pay lip-service.

Moath, the “Old Man” (the father of the Bedouin family), is a patriarchal figure—connected by a historical line to a pure source of faith—contrasting with the priestly figure of the “Imam.” The centre of religious life for the family is not the Muslim mosque but the natural world around them. Southey’s presentation of Islam in this passage has much to do with his belief that modern Islamic belief “has been miserably perverted” (Selections 1: 78). By providing evidence of Islamic public worship in his footnotes but valuing a less orthodox private faith in his text, Southey has it both ways. In relying on the nomadic Bedouins for his construction of Arab life he can avoid dealing with the Muslim religion of the masses, which is dominated by the mosque. To Southey all structures of religious hierarchy were anathema; he abhorred Roman Catholicism “because of its bloody and brutalising spirit,” but also because of what he saw as the tyranny of their system of priesthood—which he referred to as “popery”—over its faithful (Selections 1: 106). In a letter written in the same year Thalaba was published he said,

I cannot argue against toleration, yet is popery in its nature so very damnable and destructive a system, that I could not give a vote for its sufferance in England. I could no more permit the existence of a monastic establishment, than the human sacrifices of Mexican idolatry.

Selections 1: 145-6

This was a very extreme reaction, and one that he felt bound to repeat in Madoc, where he made many such comparisons between “Mexican idolatry” and Catholicism. The relevance of this to the argument here is that Southey also equated aspects of Islamic practices to Catholicism: for instance, the telling of beads [11] and belief in the torments of the wicked after death by angels, of which he says, “Monkish ingenuity has invented something not unlike this Mohammedan article of faith” (Poetical Works 4: 342). In Southey’s much later review of the Travels of Ali Bey (1816), he makes this link much more explicit, saying, “Islam has been not less corrupted with monkery, and a monstrous apparatus of mythological fable, than the Christianity of Spain” (Rev. of Travels 310). The association that Southey made between Islam, Catholicism and even “Mexican idolatry” was the common reliance of their followers on a structure of belief that enabled the figure of the “priest” to dominate them and hold them in thrall with “a monstrous apparatus of mythological fable.” This links to Southey’s abhorrence of tyranny of any kind, whether secular or religious, oriental or occidental.

In the 1790s Southey was searching for religious truth in many of the different faiths and defining his own beliefs by what he disliked in other religions. He was a lapsed Anglican non-conformist—who, as Jack Simmons suggests, was opposed to the “institution” rather than the doctrines of the established church (36). Southey is often considered to be a Socinian at this stage, but by 1809 he had certainly rejected Socinianism for “its union with the degrading and deadening philosophy of materialism” (“Account” 222). And as Daniel White notes,

Like Coleridge, Southey in the 1790s stood in a peculiar relation to Dissent; heterodox in religion and radical in his politics, he nonetheless remained unassociated with any denomination and, indeed, opposed to the very idea of sects, to sectarianism.


As time went on Southey became more attracted to the Quaker faith because of its absence of dogma, although he did not accept some of their religious practices and could never have committed himself fully to their beliefs.[13] However his comment on the religion he depicts in Thalaba—“I must build a Saracenic mosque, not a Quaker meeting house”—is quite revealing (Robberds 1: 272). Southey recognized that his text was going awry and that he was presenting the religion of the Bedouins as a private and personal relationship with God that has no intercessors or intermediaries between individuals and their faith—that part of Quakerism that he was particularly drawn to. This private form of worship, guided by intuitive faith, had more to do with his own values, drawn from the synchretization of various religions, and much less to do with the Islamic religion, a system that governs the state—and its social, political, administrative and economic affairs—as well as spiritual belief. His portrayal of Islam in Thalaba therefore reflects that perspective and leads to the further dichotomy in his text between his fictional construction of the best features of Islam—which even if accurate are frozen in an historical stasis—and evidence of its modern corrupted practices, which he feels obliged nevertheless to detail in his notes.

The corruptive influence of Islam is most obvious in the Middle Eastern cities that Southey depicts. Consequently Thalaba’s travels mainly take place alone in the desert through much of the poem so that Southey can provide a depopulated “moral” landscape for his hero. While this might have been due to problems Southey had in portraying Arabian society, it suited his representation of a spiritual mission (as it would Shelley in his poem Alastor, 1816). The isolation of the hero’s situation emphasizes the spiritual purity of his quest, uncontaminated by contact with other humans and untainted by worldly concerns. Southey continually makes a contrast between the private, moral lives of desert dwellers and large “degraded” centres of population, where the inhabitants are shown as degenerate, invidious worshippers of superstition and tyranny. Thalaba’s travels eventually take him to “Bagdad.” Because Thalaba is set in the past (in the time of Harun-al-Rashid), the city is described as prosperous and attractive:

 Its thousand dwellings o’er whose level roofs

Fair cupolas appeared, and high-domed mosques

 And pointed minarets, and cypress groves

 Every where scattered in unwithering green.

Thalaba 1: 261

Southey constructs this vision of the “Persian” capital from various disparate accounts of Eastern cities, including Alexandria, because in the modern world, he laments,

 Thou too art fallen, Bagdad! City of Peace

 Thou too hast had thy day!

And loathsome Ignorance and brute Servitude

 Pollute thy dwellings now.

Thalaba 1: 262-3

The modern city is compared to the ancient one so that Southey can show how the Islamic religion has been perverted. In his correspondence Southey revealed his responses to modern Islam:

Bagdad and Cordova had their period of munificence and literature; all else in the history of the religion is brutal ignorance and ferocity. It is now a system of degradation and depopulation, whose overthrow is to be desired as one great step to general amelioration.

Selections 1: 78

This letter illuminates Southey’s representation of Baghdad in Thalaba. This depiction gave him the opportunity to show that his story was set safely in the past at a time when the Islamic religion was not “degraded.” Baghdad’s degeneration is conflated with what Southey saw as the degeneration of Islam, motivating him to detach his ancient story from a modern “system of degradation.” One hope remains for Baghdad:

 So one day may the Crescent from thy Mosques

Be plucked by Wisdom, when the enlightened arm

 Of Europe conquers to redeem the East.

Thalaba 1: 267

This relates to the same sentiments as in Southey’s letter (above) where he sees the “overthrow” of that “religion” or “system” as something “to be desired as one great step to general amelioration.” The image of “the Crescent” being “plucked” from the mosques by “Wisdom” subscribes to this argument, as does the idea of an “enlightened” conquering of the East by Europe. The term redeem has been interpreted as a desire to reinvigorate the East to its past glory by Sharafuddin, but if this passage is read in the light of Southey’s letter, it can be understood in the Christian sense of redemption, as deliverance from sin (Sharafuddin 66). Southey argues for a justified “enlightened” form of Western imperialism that is very different from the aggressive political machinations of the Oriental despots he portrays.

V. Conclusion

It would seem that Southey, in writing Thalaba, had relocated his radicalism to the Middle East by finding there a corrupt and degenerate political, and religious “other” that would benefit from the reforming influence of a rational and morally upright Western faith and polity. However the situation is more complicated than this due to Southey’s ambiguous political position at this time. For instance, in his comments on his own society Southey was also less than complimentary:

The ablest physician can do little in the great lazar-house of society. It is a pest-house that infects all within its atmosphere; he acts the wisest part who retires from the contagion; nor is that part either a selfish or a cowardly one, it is ascending the Ark like Noah to preserve a remnant which may become the whole.

Letters 25

Even more revealing are Southey’s notes for Thalaba in his commonplace book: “Cannot the Dom Danael be made to allegorize those systems that make the misery of mankind?” and “Can the evils of established systems be well allegorized?” (Commonplace 182). Southey uses the word systems in a Blakean sense to mean the structures of society: that is, the church and state that govern it and, for Southey, therefore perpetuate “the misery of mankind.” In a letter dated 3 February 1800, contemporaneous with his writing of Thalaba, Southey speaks of his conviction “that every fact may be warped to suit a system, and that every system must be erroneous” (Robberds 1: 91).

Southey’s rejection of all systems, including British examples, is in fact very important for our understanding of Thalaba and crucial to the development of Southey’s values at this time. Thalaba’s title of “Destroyer,” and his act in obliterating the man-made “systems” of the Domdaniel caverns at God’s behest, should ostensibly carry wider social consequences than the narrow resolution of Thalaba’s union with his sister-bride, Oneiza, in heaven. But Southey’s political ambivalence infects his text because while he is on the cusp of arguing for major changes in the “systems” of society—and so employing the familiar rhetoric of radicalism from his youth—he is actually advocating a much more personal, quiescent rebellion that finds a solution to the ills of society in piety, morality and monogamous love. To have reached this position Southey also shows how much he and Coleridge were in tune again in their thinking. It was only a few years earlier that Coleridge’s poems “France: An Ode” and “Fears in Solitude” were published in the Morning Post (1798), depicting his own personal reaction to the evils of society as a retreat into “nature’s quietness / And solitary musings” (Complete Poems 244; lines 229-30). Bernhardt-Kabisch demonstrates the problems of reading Southey’s poem as a “political” text in the face of these ambiguities:

At once merely personal and vaguely metaphysical, daemonic and domestic, Thalaba’s quest wholly lacks a political middle ground: his victory, while purporting to be an act of universal redemption, produces no visible practical good other than his own promotion to beatitude.

Bernhardt-Kabisch 94

This is because Southey uses the language of radicalism but for him the meaning of the words has changed. For Bernhardt-Kabisch, reading Southey’s “semiotics” leads him to come to the conclusion that “the poem represents, in fact, a complete political disengagement” (Bernhardt-Kabisch 94).

But it is unlikely that Southey, with his radical background and what we know of his later conservative sympathies, advocates such a “disengagement.” Southey is in fact urging upon his British readers the importance of cultivating the personal qualities of self-government and reliance on intuitive faith—emphasized in the lessons learnt in Thalaba’s quest—as important tools with which to negotiate the “systems” that govern human lives. And in fact Southey can be seen as being at his most political in taking this critical stance towards the “systems” that govern human society—whether by taking that position he is denouncing the sceptical materialism of the magicians or the “priestly” structures of organized religion. Certainly Southey’s first edition of Thalaba was considered to be radical in choice of form, style and language—an indication in fact of a growing, modern “sect of poets” who were “dissenters from the established systems in poetry and criticism,” as Francis Jeffrey termed Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Lamb in his article for the Edinburgh Review (Madden 68). Southey is in some respects therefore like his hero, still the “revolutionary” of his youth, “destroying” what he sees as the old perverted regime, but what has changed now is that he does not explicitly advocate another “system” in its place. Instead he recommends a solution in personal morality and probity, based on his heroic role model, that will inspire his countrymen navigating all such faulty “systems” at home and abroad (throughout the Victorian period). Southey’s “disengagement” merely gives him a stronger position from which to attack “the great lazar-house of society,” and increasingly he would do so by relocating his radicalism in the Orient, as is also evident in The Curse of Kehama (1810), in order to bid for a national (yet Southeyan) code of values. The supremacy of such “British” values in Thalaba is a device to criticize Southey’s own society, but also serves to justify their dissemination into other cultures and societies abroad, so promoting here, as in his other works, Britain’s imperial policy abroad.