Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 3. Wat Tyler; Joan of Arc; Southey’s Blank Verse

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VIII. Southey

§ 3. Wat Tyler; Joan of Arc; Southey’s Blank Verse

Wat Tyler remains most cheerful reading. It is a short drama in verse of three acts only, and of, perhaps, some eight or nine hundred lines. If its actual authorship and circumstances were not known, a good critic might take it for a deliberate and very happy parody of the cruder and more innocent utterances of sentimental republicanism. Wat and his fellows clothe these utterances in the well-known theatrical lingo of the time; and arrange them in unexceptionable, if slightly uninspired, blank verse. For an intelligent and educated audience, the thing might still make a most laughable “curtain-raiser” or afterpiece, more particularly as its fustian fallacies are of a kind constantly revived. But, as a serious composition, it is not, and could not be, of the very slightest value. It remained, however, as has been said, unknown for all but a quarter of a century; but, at the same time, and, indeed, earlier, the author had been busy on an epic, Joan of Arc, which appeared in 1795, was received with something like enthusiasm and, by actually passing through five editions, showed the nascent taste which was to grow to the advantage of Scott and Byron. Southey altered it a good deal, and, little as he was disposed to undervalue his own work, always acknowledged its “great and numerous faults.” It is doubtful, however, whether he ever saw, or would have acknowledged if it had been pointed out to him, the most fatal fault of all—a fault shared by most—fortunately not by all—of his longer poems that followed. That fault is the adoption of blank verse for a long narrative poem, a proceeding which nobody, save Milton and Tennyson, has ever carried out successfully, while Tennyson himself, and others who have come near success, have usually broken up the single narrative into a cluster of shorter pieces.

For, to achieve such success, the verse must have qualities of its own, like those of Milton or Tennyson, which are almost independent of the subject, and which reinforce its interest to such an extent that the reader never thinks of saying “A good story; but it would have been better in prose.” Some readers certainly, do say this, not merely in reference to Joan, but to Madoc and Roderick. Southey’s blank verse is, indeed, never bad; but it also never, or in the rarest possible instances, has this intrinsic character; and it is a remarkable instance of the almost invariable soundness of his general critical principles, however the de te fabula may have sometimes escaped him, that he expressly recognised. “the great difficulties of the measure, and its disadvantages in always exposing the weak parts” of a long poem.