Southey’s public criticism of “The Ancient Mariner” as “a Dutch attempt at German sublimity” is conventionally and all too easily dismissed as a demonstration of his limitations, both as a man and as a poet. Given Southey’s allegiance to the tradition of “German sublimity,” which he felt was epitomized in Bürger’s ballads, and which he found championed by his literary friends in Norwich, he had good grounds for concern at Coleridge’s redevelopment of the modern ballad, however. Southey’s own ballad, “The Old Woman of Berkeley,” is read here as a deliberate “answer” to the problems he found in “The Ancient Mariner,” and an attempt to reinforce the “sublime” Bürger tradition. The most important difference concerns the poets’ attitudes to the past, which to Southey is essentially dead, and in need of the poet’s “organicizing” voice (Geoffrey Hartman’s term), while to Coleridge its imaginative energy survives, and can be mediated by the poet. This difference puts Southey closer to the German brand of “Romanticism.” The issues between Southey and Coleridge here are relevant to the problems we face today as scholars approaching, sorting, and evaluating the narratives of the past.
Corps de l’article
I shall hardly be satisfied till I have got a ballad as good as “Lenora.”Southey, Selections from the Letters 1:64
Southey’s best-known literary criticism is his account of “The Ancient Mariner” as “a Dutch attempt at German sublimity”—words well described by Jack Simmons as “doomed to a wretched immortality” (76). The unfortunately memorable expression has been discredited by the supposition that Southey “attacked” the poem in bad faith, smarting at Coleridge’s treatment of him three years earlier, jealous of his old friend’s new intimacy with Wordsworth. More important literary issues have been overlooked. Southey’s criticism, like all criticisms, was personal to some extent, but it is highly questionable whether he would have written differently had “The Ancient Mariner” been otherwise authored. He took a competitive view of the poem as a radically new kind of ballad, so to properly understand his criticism it is necessary to consider his own theory and practice as a ballad writer. Reading subsequent reputations into earlier contexts creates a distorted literary history, and a better understanding of uncanonical writers like Southey depends a good deal on resisting the tendency. In 1798 there was no telling that “The Ancient Mariner” would be positioned close to the centre of a “Romantic” canon of literature and become a staple text in the institutionalized study of the “Romantic Period.” On the other hand, few readers of the latest poetry would have questioned Southey’s credentials as a commentator on ballads, of which he had written several successful specimens. It is argued here that Southey’s beliefs concerning supernatural ballads can explain his generally negative attitude to “The Ancient Mariner” without the standard critical resort to aspersions of dubious personal motive. To understand those beliefs, as well as how Southey put them into practice, is to grasp an alternative perspective on the “Romantic” ballad and the “Romantic” attitude to the past. Moreover, the differences between Coleridge’s poem and Southey’s most obvious creative challenge to it are surprisingly relevant to the question of where we are now in “Romantic Period” studies.
Southey’s much-maligned review of Lyrical Ballads, containing his “immortal” criticism of “The Ancient Mariner,” appeared in the Critical Review for October 1798. As this review has often been misrepresented, it is worth reconsidering exactly what Southey said about Coleridge’s poem. He began by protesting at the published claim (in the “Advertisement”) that the poem was “professedly written in imitation of the style, as well as of the spirit of the elder poets,” noting that he could “discover no resemblance whatever, except in antiquated spelling and a few obsolete words. This piece appears to us perfectly original in style as well as in story” (200). Surely only a reader intent on understanding the review as a “demolition job” (Holmes 200) could regard this as unfair criticism; Coleridge’s unlikely boast was dropped in subsequent editions of Lyrical Ballads. Southey had no issue with Coleridge’s language per se. He greatly admired William Taylor’s Bürger translations (a matter discussed below) and Chatterton’s “Rowley” poems, both of which employed “antiquated spelling.” What concerned him was the large claim Coleridge had advanced on the basis of his antique embellishments. Southey knew “The Ancient Mariner” had little in common with genuine old ballads. Coleridge was extending the framework and implications of the traditional supernatural ballad in a way comparable to the so-called Progressive Rock development of popular music in the late 1960s. For Southey a particular sticking-point was doubtless Coleridge’s “original” interweaving of diverse (but unrecorded) source materials into a fantasy, or “Poet’s Reverie,” of his own. Southey’s ballads were mostly based on real events, traditional history or legend, and he was scrupulous about citing source materials.
The more negative part of Southey’s review of “The Ancient Mariner” occurs in the subsequent sentences, however:
Many of the stanzas are laboriously beautiful; but in connection they are absurd or unintelligible. [. . .] We do not sufficiently understand the story to analyze it. It is a Dutch attempt at German sublimity. Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit.200-1
Most of this is clear enough, though one needs to pause over the phrase “Dutch attempt.” Single word paraphrases of Dutch might be inferior or clumsy, but either misses a good deal of resonance. Dutch can be glossed with reference to the “laboriously beautiful” in the preceding sentence, and the earlier description of “The Idiot Boy” as “resembl[ing] a Flemish picture in the worthlessness of its design and the excellence of its execution” (200): like one of the lesser Dutch painters Coleridge had over-painted, piling detail on detail, losing sight of his design as a whole. Another aspect of “Dutchness” is amusingly defined in Bulwer-Lytton’s celebrated 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures of a Gentleman, where Lord Vincent criticizes Alphonse de Lamartine’s poetry for being “unpardonably obscure” and adds that “in his obscurity there is nothing sublime—it is the back ground [sic] of a Dutch picture. It is only a red herring, or an old hat, which he has invested with such pomposity of shadow and darkness” (92). The suggestion in this sense would not be that “The Ancient Mariner” is fussily drawn and badly constructed, but that the technique of “sublime” Rembrandtesque description is applied to a story of little intrinsic worth. Both senses are borne out by what we can infer of Southey’s taste from his poetic practice. “The Ancient Mariner” lacks the sort of clear, uncluttered narrative that Southey aspired to in his ballads, usually with indisputable success. It also erects its complex narrative on the foundation of a seemingly trivial incident—the shooting of an albatross—and employs a good deal of murky obscurity; again, neither charge could be made against Southey.
The part of “The Ancient Mariner” which Southey singled out for condemnation, describing it as a “riddle,” was five stanzas toward the beginning of part 5 (lines 301-322 in the first version, corresponding to lines 309-30 in the final version). Both the above senses of “Dutch” can be traced here. The passage contains a number of worked-up details, such as the descriptions of the “fire-flags” and the moon at the edge of the “one black cloud,” that are of uncertain relevance to the story as a whole (though none the less memorable for that, it should be added). There is also a vague air of something of great significance taking place, yet no obvious way to explain what it is, and some suspicion that it might not actually amount to much. Coleridge seems to have partly accepted Southey’s criticism, for he substantially revised these stanzas. But Southey’s focusing the problem of intelligibility here has a larger significance. It is in part 5 that the brisk forward movement of “The Ancient Mariner” seems to be suspended; the story as a whole definitely becomes more confusing, and the reader starts to question the mariner’s reliability as a narrator. The apparently redemptive blessing which had concluded part four, and seemed to promise an end to the mariner’s sufferings, soon seems doubtfully significant, not the obvious turning point the reader expects. Readings of the poem which seek to give it a specific meaning or “moral” usually place considerable emphasis on the blessing, while having much less to say about parts 5 and 6. Southey was thus drawing attention to the point in the poem where a crime-curse-redemption story runs into narrative complexities which are never resolved; it was here that the story moved beyond his powers of analysis and sympathy.
To further understand the implications of Southey’s Critical Review comments, one must consider his creative “answer” to “The Ancient Mariner.” In the past several critics have pointed to Southey’s fairly free use of ideas from Coleridge’s poem in his topical ballad of late 1798 or early 1799, “The Sailor, who had Served in the Slave-Trade.” This indebtedness to a “great” poem he had publicly condemned has tended to perpetuate the image of Southey as a literary opportunist and natural second-rater. “Southey makes the usual change from powerful but eccentric imaginative writing to skilled journalism,” Mary Jacobus concludes, for example (32). There is no reason to question Southey’s assertion that his ballad was inspired by a real story (Poems 105), however, and if that story was, in the telling, fertilized with ideas from “The Ancient Mariner,” it does not mean that Southey conceived of it as an “answer” to the problems he found in Coleridge’s poem. As he fully accepted and happily contributed to the genre of the supernatural ballad, he must have realized that a political, “natural” ballad like “The Sailor” was generically too distinct from “The Ancient Mariner” to challenge plausibly Coleridge’s experiment. Marilyn Butler’s suggestion that Southey’s “answer” was contained in the verse-romance Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) represents an advance, not only in the recognition that any “answer” needed to be concerned with supernatural material, but in the methodological assumption that Southey can be considered excitingly different from Coleridge instead of simply inferior. Whether her specific claim can be sustained depends on how it is understood. In book 4 of Thalaba the eponymous hero, dying of thirst in the desert, cuts the throat of his equally suffering camel with a view to obtaining its “hoarded draught” (1: 234). The action has no consequences and is described as a “merciful deed” (232) undertaken with “stern compassion” (230). Here, says Butler, “Southey plainly introduces parallels to the slaying of the albatross” (“Repossessing the Past” 77). The parallels will not strike every reader as “plain.” They might suggest themselves to the modern reader who comes to Thalaba with “The Ancient Mariner” already in mind as a seminal “Romantic” narrative, and they could form a basis for seminar discussion, but the larger thesis that Southey deliberately introduced them (insubstantial as they are), positioning “The Ancient Mariner” as a rival text, entails a leap of faith, especially given the multitude of other narrative topoi in Thalaba and the different genre in which Southey was working. Butler was not, in fact, making a scholarly “case” for indebtedness but rather throwing out intentionally provocative suggestions as to how Southey could be read as a central “Romantic” author on the evidence of Thalaba alone. Here I prefer to improve Jonathan Wordsworth’s hint, in the introduction to his facsimile edition of Southey’s 1799 Poems, that Southey’s supernatural ballad “The Old Woman of Berkeley” was his corrective response to “The Ancient Mariner.” Although he reverts with apparent ease to the assumption that Southey simply is a lesser poet than Coleridge, Jonathan Wordsworth’s contrast between Coleridge’s universe of frightening chance events and Southey’s “[r]elatively [. . .] comfortable” world of “rules” (n. pag.) is a useful step toward understanding Southey’s criticism of “The Ancient Mariner” in relation to his own poetic practice.
On 5 September 1798, in a letter to William Taylor of Norwich, Southey included an earlier version of his “immortal” criticism: “Coleridge’s ballad of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is, I think, the clumsiest attempt at German sublimity I ever saw” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 223). It is probable that the criticism was originally framed for Taylor in particular, as will become clear in a moment. The letter was from Hereford, where the Southeys were on holiday. A few days later, on “the last day of [his] pleasant visit at Hereford” (Poetical Works 6: xiii), Southey began writing a new ballad of his own, which became known as “The Old Woman of Berkeley.” This essay in the “sublime” German style was sent to Taylor on 1 October; consciously or unconsciously Southey must have regarded it as a protest against Coleridge’s peculiar development of the German ballad. It was in a similar meter to “The Ancient Mariner,” but with modern spelling—in these respects like several of Southey’s earlier ballads. What was new was the scale of the supernatural action and the narrative correspondence with Bürger’s “Lenore,” which in its translation by Taylor represented the acme of 1790s “German sublimity.” “The Old Woman of Berkeley” was exceptionally well received in Norwich. Taylor showed the poem to his friend Frank Sayers, then reported back to Southey enthusiastically:
We both like your ballad infinitely—it is the best possible way of treating the story—it is everything that a ballad should be—old in the costume of the ideas, as well as of the style and metre—in the very spirit of the superstitions of the days of yore—perpetually climbing in interest, and indeed the best original English ballad we know of.qtd. in Robberds 1: 235-6
Taylor’s choice of words may be a deliberate response to Southey’s published objections to “The Ancient Mariner.” He did not subsequently waver in his judgment. In 1805 he reaffirmed: “The ‘Old Woman of Berkeley’ is unquestionably the best original English ballad extant” (qtd. in Robberds 2: 106). Taylor’s high, intelligent praise probably went a considerable way to convince Southey that he better understood what “a ballad should be” than Coleridge. On the matter of supernatural ballads, Southey would have cared for no critic’s good opinion so much as that of Taylor and Sayers. To understand this, we must digress a little into his relationship with them and their work.
Taylor and Sayers were leading lights in the short-lived literary renaissance that Norwich underwent between the late 1780s and the early 1800s. Of the two, Sayers had the larger reputation. His Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology, published in 1790, achieved moderate success in England and considerably greater success in Germany, where it briefly held out the possibility of an Anglo-German “Romantic” movement. It had an enormous and lasting impact on Southey and was “the first book [he] was ever master of money enough to order at a country bookseller’s” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 447). Southey obtained the second edition (1792), retitled Poems, which added several miscellaneous pieces to the original “Dramatic Sketches,” including a ballad, “Sir Egwin,” loosely translated from Friedrich Leopold Stolberg’s “Die Büßende” (“The Repenting Woman”) of 1779. This was, if not the first, certainly one of the earliest published translations (or, more accurately, adaptations) of the new wave of “sublime” German ballads into English. Taylor’s first book, published in 1793, was an anonymous translation of Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, which made little impact, despite its high literary quality. In the same year he became a regular writer for the Monthly Review. His wider fame commenced in 1796 when his adaptation of Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenore” (1790) was published (anonymously) in the Monthly Magazine, along with a more literal translation of Bürger’s “Des Pfarrers Tochter von Taubenhain.” The former in particular caused a sensation, and the name of the translator was soon known to Southey, provoking his surprise: “Who is this Taylor? I suspected they were by Sayers” (Life and Correspondence 1: 287). The remark succinctly points to how unusual Sayers and Taylor still were in their concern with German ballads. The Bürger translations were another major influence on Southey. He subsequently told Taylor: “You taught me to write English by what you said of Bürger’s language and by what I felt from your translations,—one of the eras in my intellectual history [. . .]” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 453). He later described the “translation” of “Lenore” as “the best translation in the language” (Rev. of Nathan the Wise 639). Southey visited Norwich in May 1798, discovered that Sayers and Taylor were close friends, and for the first time encountered a literary coterie which he not only greatly admired but in which his own work was appreciated and intelligently discussed. In July he and Taylor began a correspondence which lasted until the 1820s. Taylor encouraged Southey’s poetry with warm appreciation and welcome criticism, probably ensuring, for better or worse, that Southey’s serious commitment to poetry lasted considerably longer than it would have done otherwise. On poetical matters Southey placed great faith in Taylor’s judgment, and he probably felt confident that his negative view of “The Ancient Mariner” would be endorsed by his new friend, the foremost promoter of “German sublimity” in England.
Sayers, Taylor and Southey were all interested in incorporating “German sublimity” into English ballads and seem to have touched on the matter during Southey’s Norwich visit. There is some confusion about exactly what was said, and the contradictory evidence is set out in appendix 1. But the important fact is simply that the three poets, all interested in supernatural ballads on the German (Bürger) model, all wrote ballads on “The Old Woman of Berkeley” story of the elaborate but unsuccessful attempt by an old witch to prevent the Devil carrying away her body (on horseback) after her death. This was Sayers’s only attempt at an original ballad, and it seems to have been the only one Taylor completed, though he later tried to write one on the Faustus legend (Robberds 1: 313). The shape of the story, as suggested already, is comparable to that of “Lenore,” and this was doubtless one of its principal attractions for all concerned. After the publication of Southey’s version in 1799, comparisons with Bürger’s celebrated ballad were soon made, and Southey protested against them in a note to Thalaba: “The ‘Old Woman of Berkely [sic]’ has been foolishly called an imitation of that inimitable Ballad [‘Lenore’]: the likeness is of the same kind as between Macedon and Monmouth. Both are Ballads, and there is a horse in both” (2: 134). Although one can have some sympathy with Southey’s exasperation, “The Old Woman” was a ballad which effectively pointed up the centrality of “Lenore” in the ballad literature of the 1790s, and it is hard to believe that Southey, unhappy with Coleridge’s challenge to the Bürger tradition, was unaware of the canonical implications of his poem. In this sense, as suggested earlier, Southey’s “Old Woman” was an attempt to undo what Coleridge had done, to restore the pure stream of “German sublimity” with Taylor and Sayers in mind as the best judges of such matters. The outstanding impact the poem had in Norwich shows how well Southey understood the taste of his chosen audience.
Sayers’s version of the “Old Woman of Berkeley” story must have been made by early 1792, but it was not published, and does not appear to have survived. Judging from the rest of his early poetry, it was probably a serious treatment of the story. Taylor’s version, written at around the same time as Sayers’s, and Southey’s, of 1798, were both published and allow for an illuminating comparison. (Taylor’s version, one of the most intriguing ballads of the 1790s, will be inaccessible to many scholars and is included in appendix 2.) As both were English responses to the “German sublime,” they can be usefully compared to “The Ancient Mariner” too. In 1805 Southey was hoping to juxtapose his and Taylor’s versions in a new edition of his Poems, and he wrote an explanation of his reasons to Taylor which importantly reveals his understanding of the differences between their poems:
[. . .] were there any legitimate ground for comparison, I never should have wished to place them together. My wish was, to show how very differently the same subject may be treated; how the same plant varies under different circumstances of climate and culture. Mine is the ballad of a ballad-maker, believing the whole superstition, and thereby making even the grotesque terrible; yours that of a poet, decorating a known fable, laughing behind a masque of fear. Mine has no invention, not an atom, yet wants none, it is the legend in verse; yours a story of your own [. . .]qtd. in Robberds 2: 112
“[T]he ballad of a ballad-maker, believing the whole superstition, and thereby making even the grotesque terrible”: this is Southey’s most important statement concerning his ambition in his serious supernatural ballads. It is a statement that needs to be considered alongside a view of his work later expressed by Herman Merivale:
[. . .] the ballads to which we would refer, as the productions of all others most characteristic of his [Southey’s] genius, are those of a comic or semi-serious character, where he plays with the marvellous;—those of which saints, monks, and devils, are the uniform heroes. There is an odd raciness about these productions which it is impossible to describe, and difficult to compare to any thing else in existence.371
Merivale’s is a shrewd criticism. Southey’s earliest supernatural ballads (“Donica” and “Rudiger,” both published in his 1797 Poems) are wholly serious, but by 1798 his efforts in this line were starting to be subverted, perhaps consciously, by a “comic or semi-serious” tone. It is difficult to read a ballad like “Bishop Bruno,” written at around the same time as “The Old Woman of Berkeley,” without feeling that the comic impulse has triumphed. Southey knew the difficulty of suppressing the ludicrous aspect of such stories. Writing to Taylor in 1800, in reference to the latter’s abortive attempt at a Faustus ballad, he noted, “In general these Beelzebub stories require a mixture of the ludicrous with the terrific, which it is difficult, if possible, to avoid” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 326; one must wonder whether Southey actually wrote “acquire” rather than “require”). But although “The Old Woman of Berkeley” may seem to strain at the limits of seriousness, Southey and his Norwich friends clearly believed that it had not transgressed them, and that therein lay its strength. Southey was indignant when John Payne Collier later described it as a “mock-ballad,” rejoining sarcastically: “Certainly this was not suspected by the Author, or any of his friends” (Poetical Works 6: xv). The strain of preserving the correct tone in the ballad is clear, for soon afterwards Southey, for the first and only time, wrote a parody of his own “serious” ballad and published it together with “The Old Woman” in his 1799 Poems (a volume which, apart from this parody, intriguingly only included “serious” examples of Southey’s supernatural ballad art). Southey’s later plan to publish his poem with Taylor’s would again have placed it alongside a version of the story which had pronounced farcical and burlesque aspects. Of course, if Southey found it hard to suppress a sense of absurdity, it is even harder for the modern reader. Coleridge referred approvingly to “The Old Woman” as a “wild ballad” in Biographia Literaria (1: 64), yet in the standard modern edition of that work the editors want to dismiss this description as ironic: “‘wild ballad’ is so much an overstatement for the [. . .] Old Woman of Berkeley (1798) that one would suspect C[oleridge] of irony if irony were more endemic to his nature” (1:64n1). In fact Coleridge’s judgment is of a piece with Taylor’s, Sayers’s, and other contemporaries’ comments, and it is only the inevitable movement, over time, of the boundary between horror and farce that prompts the resort to irony. The Mysteries of Udolpho no longer chills the blood of the average undergraduate reader.
Southey’s comment to Taylor concerning their ballads on “The Old Woman of Berkeley” story shows that he was particularly interested in how a ballad of this kind reflects its creator’s relationship to his traditionary materials. Taylor’s narrative stance of (as Southey well put it) “laughing behind a masque of fear” did not exclude burlesque and in some ways produced a more sophisticated poem, but it can be inferred from his great enthusiasm for Southey’s treatment of the story that he considered a “straight” rendering, à la Bürger, more impressive, and harder to achieve. Southey was not above awarding the palm to himself: “that my ‘Old Woman’ is the best ballad of the two, I never should affect to doubt [. . .]” (qtd. in Robberds 2: 112). They appear to have agreed that the old story was wholly unbelievable, and that the conviction with which Southey told it was an extraordinary act of imagination—that (a little paradoxically) his literal version “without invention” was actually the more imaginative. It is noteworthy here that Taylor objected to Southey’s juxtaposition of a serious ballad with its parody. Having received the latter’s 1799 Poems he wrote:
Of the ballads I very much prefer the “Old Woman of Berkeley”; and notwithstanding the wonderful excellence of the parody, I am half angry with you for undertaking it; the original is not recurred to again with so much sensation after the introduction of ludicrous associations.qtd. in Robberds 1: 267
Southey had squeezed the latent absurdity out of the story and made a separate poem with it. That even a literal version seemed close to the boundary between horror and farce is suggested by Taylor’s protest at the danger of “ludicrous associations.” There was some disagreement between Taylor and Southey on this point, however, for Southey continued to publish “The Old Woman of Berkeley” alongside his parodic version, possibly believing that the parody would serve as an effective foil to the horror of the original. Their difference would then be akin to that between Hazlitt and Keats on the effect of the Fool in act 3 of King Lear. Whereas Hazlitt regarded the Fool’s “well-timed levity” as relaxing the mood of what would else be virtually unendurable, Keats saw it “giv[ing] a finishing touch to the pathos; making what without him [the Fool] would be within our heart-reach nearly unfathomable” (qtd. in Lowell 2: 588).
In a second comparison of “The Ancient Mariner” with Thalaba Marilyn Butler suggests that
Readers who move in and out of the footnotes of Thalaba, which entails entering and leaving the discourses of many centuries, can’t avoid adopting a historical perspective. More specifically, their vantage point is characterized as “enlightened”; the reader is typecast as a progressive.“Political Narratives” 143
Southey, she adds, was “refuting Coleridge’s attempt in The Ancient Mariner to defend Christianity by incorporating its apparent crudities and ‘superstitions’ into a record of faith” (142). In this argument, Southey, the obsessive collector of folkloric beliefs and stories, was intent on exploding their superstitious basis. Southey himself, later in life, was inclined to present his supernatural ballads of the 1790s in this light. In Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829), he remarks to the ghost of More:
If you happen, Sir, to have read some of those ballads which I threw off in the high spirits of youth, you may judge what my opinion then was of the grotesque demonology of the monks and middle ages, by the use there made of it.1: 9
In 1800 he reported to Taylor that he had “been reprehended for writing such tales, because they encouraged superstition:—an idle remark; for surely making free with the devil is not the way to preserve his respectability” (qtd. in Robberds 1:326). The earlier comment lacks the hint of a program in Sir Thomas More, and given Southey’s various statements concerning “The Old Woman,” there can be little doubt that “making free with the devil” was not his original purpose in writing supernatural ballads, however much his particular development of the genre allowed this retrospective defense. He clearly felt that the modern supernatural ballad, at its best, could and should awaken superstitious fears, and he was later proud to report that “The Old Woman of Berkeley” had been censored in Russia because it frightened children (Poetical Works 6: xv). This is not, of course, to suggest that he found such stories in any way believable, and he objected to Wordsworth’s attempt to sell “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” as a “True Story,” but he wanted to tell them as though they were. And Southey’s wish to do the utmost imaginative justice to a genuinely old story complicates Jonathan Wordsworth’s view of “The Old Woman” as driven by a “fear [. . .] of the inexplicable” (n. pag.) in particular the inexplicability of Coleridge’s poem, even though his insecure and conservative Southey seems to me essentially more credible than Butler’s Volney-like “progressive.” If Southey’s “Old Woman” was comfortingly explicable it was because his source was. Besides, any psychological argument of this nature would need to explain how and why the same story appealed equally to Sayers and Taylor. Whereas Jonathan Wordsworth regards Southey’s corrective response to “The Ancient Mariner” as consisting chiefly in a rejection of the disquieting aspects of the story, both Southey’s Lyrical Ballads review and his “Old Woman” would suggest that he was more concerned with issues of narrative conviction and historicized perspective.
Southey’s remark that he wrote “The Old Woman” as if “believing the whole superstition” best explains how that poem functioned as an “answer” to “The Ancient Mariner.” His recipe for a modern supernatural ballad was to take a genuinely old story concerned with a supernatural event and to write it as if with complete faith in its credibility, “in the spirit of the elder poets.” The power of “The Old Woman,” to Southey himself, as well as to Taylor and Sayers, lay in its impressive lack of any subversive, “enlightened” sentiment—something also absent from the introductory note published with the poem. An argument rather different from Butler’s can be made here. Southey was likely to see in the dramatic narration and riddling meanderings of “The Ancient Mariner” an underlying doubt respecting the sort of external agencies that ballads of this kind had previously been constructed around and which (in his view) were necessary to the proper effect of such poems. The subtitle Coleridge adopted in 1800, “A Poet’s Reverie,” would have only made things worse as far as Southey was concerned. Coleridge was evolving a modern type of horror in which the mind is haunted by it own capacity for delusion and apparently irrelevant details mimic the bizarrely illogical foci of real dreams. Southey had neither the ability nor the wish to follow him. He saw in “The Ancient Mariner” only an attempt to enlarge, aggrandize and modernize the ballad form without the firm foundation of a “known fable” and without a convincingly feigned belief in the genuinely supernatural. An accumulation of detail and some sublime obscurity did not, in his opinion, compensate for the absence of clear, connected incident and a properly historicized narrative perspective. However much we congratulate ourselves on being superior readers, this was not an unreasonable point of view for a professional rival who practiced what he preached.
“The Ancient Mariner,” then, was almost certainly one factor prompting Southey’s definitive essay at “German sublimity.” The resulting poem was highly esteemed by the judges Southey most wanted to impress. But “The Old Woman of Berkeley” is hardly read at all nowadays, and the works of Taylor and Sayers, those chosen judges, much less still. One lesson might be the familiar one that, in order to appreciate Southey today, we need to reconstruct literary contexts in which his ambitions and successes can be appreciated, though such a procedure obviously runs some risk of locking Southey into his historical context and giving him a merely period interest. The problem is that “The Ancient Mariner” has become a key canonical text in large part because of the very qualities Southey took exception to, and this has the effect of making “The Old Woman of Berkeley” seem deliberately uncanonical to the modern reader, despite its being written as an attempt to reinforce a Bürger-centred “canon.” Even the sort of praise Southey would have welcomed sounds unmistakably condescending now. Jonathan Wordsworth, for example, writes:
The Old Woman of Berkeley is Southey at his best—readable, fast moving, beautifully written. The problem is that we want it to be Coleridge, and Southey wants it not to be.n. pag.
“The Ancient Mariner” is a singularly “open” text, saturated with psychological interest; “The Old Woman of Berkeley” is not. Even the present revival of interest in the political commitments of some of Southey’s imaginative writing seems unlikely to resurrect this once celebrated ballad (indeed how many ballads from this period, apart from Lyrical Ballads, are discussed nowadays?). It would be easy to conclude that “The Old Woman of Berkeley” has had its day.
Nevertheless, “The Old Woman of Berkeley” can still tell us something useful about the “Romantic” movement and, in addition, illuminate contemporary trends in the professional practice of “Romanticists.” A useful way into these issues is to go back to Geoffrey Hartman’s 1975 essay, “Wordsworth and Goethe in Literary History.” Hartman here considers the different approaches of Wordsworth and Goethe to the writing of a “northern” supernatural poetry, focusing on the former’s “Danish Boy: A Fragment” and the latter’s “Erlkönig.” Hartman himself remarks correspondences between “The Danish Boy” and “The Ancient Mariner,” and some obvious comparisons which might suggest themselves between “Der Erlkönig” and Southey’s “Old Woman” can be extended in light of his analysis of the former. The German context and the theme of what Hartman calls the “Northern Enchantment” also implicate the work of Taylor and Sayers in the discussion. Hartman links the differences he traces to the contrasting cultural situations in England and Germany, suggesting that “There is a potential ‘Theory of English Literature’ in Wordsworth’s poetry as there is a ‘Theory of German Literature’ in that of Goethe” (60). No doubt there is “a potential ‘Theory of English Literature’” in Wordsworth, but it is not inclusive, for on Hartman’s model Southey, Sayers and Taylor, all champions of “German sublimity,” are, if not quite Goethean, at least closer to Goethe than Wordsworth. Herman Merivale, in his essay on Southey’s poetry, commented perceptively on Southey’s temperamental affinity to the German Romantics, especially Schiller (361-4). The Germanic culture-making spirit was clearly at work in Britain, too. Hartman’s basic distinction is between the English poet, haunted by the imaginative energy of the past, and the German poet, who requires an “art which at once organizes and organicizes a past so discontinuous with the present, that, but for it [art], only volcanic (storm-and-stress) historicism or a new religious incarnation could re-present it” (69). English “Romanticism” is a form of mediation; German “Romanticism” is a fierce kind of resurrection. But Southey, like the Germans, was little troubled by the past, and shows scant evidence of any “anxiety of influence.” “The Old Woman of Berkeley” is an exemplary model of his general approach to the supernatural tales of old, which tend to look absurd at best, dead at worst, yet are capable of a certain kind of imaginative redemption through the power of an “organicizing” voice penetrating to the “shores of old romance.” “The Ancient Mariner,” by contrast, as Marilyn Butler has remarked, is a poem which seems to brood over its own sense of pastness and thus makes that past continuous with the present. Charles Lamb’s famous defense of the poem, against Southey’s “Dutch” criticism, as “a right English attempt [. . .] to dethrone German sublimity” (1: 142) is given sophisticated modern support by Hartman’s essay.
Of particular importance today, I believe, is the fact that Hartman’s championship of Wordsworth (and “The Ancient Mariner”) involved the championship of a critical method which to some extent assumed the shape of what it described: a meditative approach which read Wordsworth into a tradition of European thought, which drew on the full intellectual resources of that tradition, and which was often, it seemed, almost compulsively allusive. Not many scholars of “Romantic” literature have ever been able to summon up such rich stores of inherited and assimilated thought; few now are even attempting to equip themselves with such learning. Over the past twenty years or so, the way of “doing” “Romanticism” has changed enormously, and the most influential critic has surely been Marilyn Butler, coincidentally Southey’s most notable recent champion as well. And Butler’s critical method is much more akin to Southey’s creative practice. Her main influence has been in directing attention to “forgotten” works which until recently seemed either quite dead or hopelessly absurd to a sophisticated modern reader: hers has been an “organicizing” voice. While she ostensibly chose Southey as an exemplary “missing link” in our view of the Romantic period—as a writer whose work helps us understand his contemporaries, as well as that violent cut and thrust of culture in which great writing is actually born—it is hard to escape the feeling that her attraction to him derives in part from his particular combination of freedom from the past and willingness to explore and reactivate its imaginative possibilities. “Repossessing the Past” is what both Southey and Butler have been about. It can be ventured, then, that what Southey with professional rivalry dismissed as a “Dutch attempt,” and Lamb more generously defended as an “English attempt” at “German sublimity,” is a poem particularly apt for critics who read the past as continuous with the present and believe in the power of tradition. On the other hand, Southey’s “answer,” an attempt at genuine “German sublimity,” is a poem for critics who see the past as discontinuous with the present, but recoverable in part through an effort of difficult, but rewarding, sympathetic identification. The difference is more than ever relevant to the question of how we respond to the narratives of earlier periods.
Three Poets and “The Old Woman of Berkeley” Story
As noted above, Frank Sayers, William Taylor and Southey all wrote poems on “The Old Woman of Berkeley” story. There are some uncertainties regarding this striking coincidence. In his “Biographic Particulars” prefacing Sayers’s Collective Works of 1823, Taylor wrote that on the occasion of Southey’s first visit to Norwich in 1798:
Dr. Sayers pointed out to us in conversation, as adapted for the theme of a ballad, a story related by Olaus Magnus of a witch, whose coffin was confined by three chains sprinkled with holy water, but was nevertheless carried off by demons. Already I believe Dr. Sayers had made a ballad on the subject, so did I, and so did Mr. Southey: but after seeing the Old Woman of Berkeley, we agreed in awarding to it the preference. Indeed it may be placed at the head of English ballads.1: lxxxii
There is clearly some failure of memory here, as from earlier comments made by Taylor it is clear that he and Sayers wrote their ballads several years before Southey’s visit. In 1838, moreover, Southey contested the suggestion that he was led to “The Old Woman of Berkeley” story by Sayers:
[. . .] I had so much to interest me there [Norwich] in the society of my kind host and friend Mr. William Taylor, that the mention at Dr. Sayers’s table of the story in Olaus Magnus made no impression on me at the time, and was presently forgotten. Indeed, if I had known that either he or his friend had written or intended to write a ballad upon the subject, that knowledge, however much the subject might have pleased me, would have withheld me from all thought of versifying it.Poetical Works 6: xii-xiii
Southey goes on to say that he first encountered the story when reading Matthew of Westminster in Hereford Cathedral Library. On the whole, his seems the more reliable record. Taylor’s recollections, long before this, had been contradictory. On 23 December 1798 he wrote to Southey, “Your ballad—I believe I told you that Dr. Sayers had written one on this story [. . .] I did not tell you that I too had at that same period tried my hand on the story” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 235). However, by 28 October 1805 he was stating “My ‘Tale of Wonder,’ as I told you the first time you came to Norwich, was written at the same time as a ballad of Dr. Sayers on the same subject” (qtd. in Robberds 2: 106). Southey’s response to the earlier letter is perhaps the best way of reconciling the evidence: “Not knowing the story when you mentioned his [Sayers’s] ballad, I thought the subject a mine of my own discovery” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 239).
William Taylor’s “A Tale of Wonder”
As noted above, William Taylor’s version of the “Old Woman of Berkeley” story can be dated circa 1791, but it remained unpublished for many years. It was originally written “in common metre, in quatrains,” but some years later Taylor “interpolated a third or fourth line in every stanza, and they are rime-lines. [. . . Y]ou can hardly detect anywhere the superfluous line which formed no part of the original conception” (qtd. in Robberds 2: 106). In this revised form the poem was published in the Iris, a weekly Norwich newspaper, on 29 October 1803. In 1805 Southey offered to republish it in a new edition of his own Poems “on good paper and in fair types” (qtd. in Robberds 2: 112), but Taylor declined the offer. He republished the poem in the Monthly Magazine (1812) with slight spelling and punctuation variations. It is not clear whether Taylor entitled his poem before the publication of M. G. “Monk” Lewis’s Tales of Wonder of 1801; Southey was opposed to the use of “that undistinguishing name of Matthew Lewis’s” (qtd. in Robberds 2: 113). The text given here exactly follows that in the Iris, though obvious misprints are corrected. Shelleyans will be interested to note that Taylor was extremely unusual in using the word alastor in English and that the published use of it here (line 29) precedes OED’s earliest citation (also by Taylor) by seven years.
A Tale of Wonder
“Now that I’ve got my beads and cross,
My candle, book, and bell;
Up the long aile my steps attend,
In order walk, together bend,
You ringers, slack the knell. 5
“The church, methinks, is wond’rous dim,
The tapers strangely blue;
I scarce shall see to do my task,
For our lost sister mercy ask,
And read the service thro’. 10
“Carry the torches on before
To guide our black parade;
Beside Saint Patrick’s statue halt,
You’ll see the sexton at the vault;
‘Tis there the grave is made. 15
“Now, bearers, lift the corse again;
Slow be your noiseless way;
If all the mourners are come in,
The clerk his dirges may begin;
The body to the clay.” 20
“Sir priest, we dare not touch the bier,
Squat on the sable pall
Sits a grim fiend with goggle eyes,
And finger-nails of such a size,
His grinning scares us all.” 25
“Depart from here, thou evil sprite,
Nor mock a christian throng;
The midnight mass will soon be read,
Which even the alastors dread,
Thou canst not tarry long.” 30
“I am no puny fiend of hell
To shudder at a prayer;
Tho’ in his pix thy god were shut,
Tho’ in thy cup his blood were put,
His presence should not scare. 35
“Sir priest, I’ll not depart from here
Until I’ve got my prey;
This coffin holds a witch asleep;
The church not long its theft shall keep;
With me she must away.” 40
“I know that here a witches corse
Awaits her burial still;
I heard her latest dying shrift,
I took her sin-atoning gift,
And wrote her pious will. 45
She hath endow’d Saint Patrick’s church
With all her worldly store;
Three chains with holy water wet,
With aves blest, with reliques set,
Confine her from thy power.” 50
“Know the Redeemer’s blood was shed
For holy folks alone;
Your unctions are no salve for vice;
Who sell their souls must pay the price,
Their guilt he can’t atone. 55
“This parchment made of baby skin,
Drown’d by the mother’s hand,
Contains a contract writ in blood
For everlasting ages good:
My purchase I demand. 60
“No baptism on the tiny skull
By holy hands was shed;
‘Twas lost for better or for worse,
In limbo pent it pules a curse
Against its mother’s head. 65
“Her infant’s skin I show to thee;
She took its life away.
For muttering backwards the whole creed,
Her from the noose of death I freed,
And noos’d her soul for aye.” 70
“And dost thou think that holy church
The bonds of hell will mind?
No sign of cross is set thereon;
No hallelujah do I con;
No gospel-name I find.” 75
“Smash! see my hand has broke thy chain
With blessed water wet.
This magic bond shall stand me good;
Down to the melted brimstone flood
I’ll take her spirit yet. 80
“I brought her on the Sabbath eve,
So dear to witch and fiend,
Thy church with dancings lewd to shame,
And do the deed without a name.
Smash! there’s but one behind.” 85
“Have at thee devil to thy cost,
With the dread cross I wield!
By Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
By Patrick, and the heavenly host,
I charge thee, devil, yield!” 90
“Although thy cross have sear’d me sore,
I shall not slink away
Read all thy spells, and I will hear,
And fold my claws, and sham a tear:
The body to the clay.” 95
Then springing from his lare he droop’d
His leathern pennons low;
With cloven foot, and trailing tail,
Demure and slower than a snail,
He pac’d before the show. 100
While sang the clerk, and pray’d the priest,
And sigh’d the swarthy train,
And hollow voices cried, “amen,”
And the bell toll’d—toll’d now and then,
The devil yawn’d amain. 105
By peeps they mark his thighs of goat,
And horns and eyes so grim,
And in his hand a snaky thong.
He looks, and looks, at all the throng;
They blink, and blink, at him. 110
The creaking coffin to the grave
At length the black crew bring.
But one is there more black than they;
Their cheek-blood turns as white as whey
To see him in the ring. 115
He helps them, with a hand of might,
The coffin to bestow.
It croaks adown the whirring ropes,
The sexton for the pavement gropes,
But feels no floor below. 120
“Hold both my legs while I look down.
Christ! what a noise of wo!
A gush of flames, a moan of souls,
And climbing howls, and yells, and growls,
From far, far far below! 125
“Sexton, this grave must have been sunk
Beyond the holy ground.
Hold firm the cords; for heaven’s sake stop;
Don’t let the poor old woman drop,
‘Till we the gulph can sound.” 130
“No rosary will fathom there;
No bell-rope blest aright.
There is no bottom to the pit,
Where in wild gambol down must flit,
That witch and I to night.” 135
He stretcht his hoof into the grave,
And kick’d with hellish force.
The coffin melts in flame, and smoke;
The third, the only chain is broke;
Uprose the shuddering corse. 140
Then might be seen a woman’s shape,
Her skin of ashy hue,
With writhing limbs, and bristling hair,
And eyes of chalk in haggard stare,
And lips and nipples blue. 145
Wringing her hands in wild affright
She clung about the priest:
“For this thy chalice have I quaff’d?”
Dumb was the priest; the devil laugh’d;
All hope of safety ceas’d. 150
Stripes from the fiend attain her heart,
And the whelk’d bosom scar.
Ghaunt hell-hounds bolting from the chasm
Drag her along in ghastly spasm,
While twangs his lash afar. 155
“This is the worm that never dies,
Wherewith I urge thy flight,
Down to the fires that never quench,
Where fiends their friends with torment drench,
In pits of endless night.” 160
When lo! Saint Patrick’s shape of stone
Jump’d frowning from its nich.
Its step was thunder: the church shook:
The devil by the horns it took:
Glad was the priest, and witch. 165
“This woman in my parish born,
And christen’d with my name,
Must to my purgatory go:
There bleach her for an aeon , or so,
In purifying flame. 170
“But in your own damn’d dwelling-place
Heathens alone confine.
Not into hell your flight pursue:
When Christ descends to rake it thro’,
He’ll meet no child of mine.” 175
The devil obey’d; and slunk away:
Clos’d was the yawning deep.
Back to its shelf the statue ran.
The priest his midnight mass began,
And next went home to sleep. 180
As first published in Southey’s Poems of 1799, the poem was given the cumbersome title of “A Ballad, shewing how an old woman rode double and who rode before her.” This never caught on, and by 1801 Southey had accepted that the poem was to be called “The Old Woman of Berkeley” (Thalaba 2: 134).
A terminus ante quem for Sayers’s version of the “Old Woman of Berkeley” story is supplied by William Taylor’s 1798 statement that Sayers had “excluded it from his collection of poems” (qtd. in Robberds 1: 235). This can only refer to Poems of early 1792. It is likely, though far from certain, that Sayers was attracted to the story after reading Taylor’s “Lenore” adaptation of 1790.
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