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

VIII. Southey

§ 6. Thalaba

Yet, all this was itself the work of a very young man; in the earlier cases, of a mere boy; and, when Southey returned to the long poem with Thalaba (1801, but very long in hand), he was only six- or seven-and-twenty. But this was not only by far the most ambitious, it was, also, though less important and much less well inspired than the Ballads, the most audaciously experimental of the work he had yet tried. Rimeless metres outside the regular blank verse were, of course, not absolutely novel in English. Campion had tried them and gone near to beauty two centuries earlier; Collins had tried them in the last generation and gone nearer; just before Southey himself and Frank Sayers (v. inf.) had used them on a larger scale. But nobody had adventured a really long poem in them. Southey did, and with the same remarkable appreciation of metrical theory as well as practice which he had shown in the ballad case. The great danger of unrimed verse in English is that (from that natural tendency of the language which showed itself as early as Chaucer’s prose) it will fall into more or less complete and continuous iambic decasyllables, unless it is arranged, either into somewhat un-English line-moulds as it had been by Campion, or into very definitely marked and identical stanzas, as it had been by Collins—with the result, in both cases, of a monotony which would be intolerable in a long poem. Sayers had notoriously fallen into the trap, as have, since, Matthew Arnold and W. E. Henley. Southey, with his eyes open to it, determined that he would avoid it, and he did. Thalaba, though not quickly admired, was much liked by good wits of his own generation, and not without reason. The story is by no means uninteresting and, if not exactly the characters, the situations are good. There are far finer passages in it than in Joan of Arc; indeed, some of the incidents, and more of the descriptions, are really poetical. But the unfamiliarity and aloofness of the whole thing are not carried off by the diable au corps of Vathek or the sheer story interest of The Arabian Nights themselves; and the unrimed versification perpetually harasses and hampers the reader as something, perhaps, admirable, but, somehow, not enjoyable—in other words, as a disappointment and a mistake.

Besides Joan of Arc and the Minor Poems written before and during the Westbury sojourn, Southey, in 1794, had collaborated with Coleridge in the worthless Fall of Robespierre, and with his other brother-in-law, Lovell, in a small collection of lesser verse. He had also issued the first of his many volumes of prose as Letters from Spain and Portugal (1797). This, without Wat Tyler, then unpublished, but with Thalaba, made more than half a dozen volumes in hardly more than as many years. But a longer gap occurred—one, indeed, of four years—till, though he did not quite know it, he had settled down at Keswick, and started on the career which was only to close with his death, and to leave plentiful matter for posthumous publication. In 1805, however, he reappeared with two volumes of verse—Metrical Tales and Madoc. The former contained not a little of the nondescript, but acceptable, work above described; the latter, which had been many years on the stocks, was introduced with a flourish (“Come, for ye know me! I am he who sung”), warranted by classical precedents rather than in accordance with the modesty expected from English poets. Although, like Thalaba, it sold very slowly and disappointed the hopes which the reception of the far inferior Joan of Arc had raised in its author, it was very much admired by no common judges; and there are, I believe, one or two among the now infrequent readers of Southey who rank it highly. To others, the peculiar curse referred to above seems to rest on it. The adventures of the son of Owen Gwyneth in his own land and in Mexico are neither uninteresting nor ill-told. But some rebellious minds cannot away with the vehicle of telling—

  • This is the day when in a foreign grave
  • King Owen’s relics shall be laid to rest—
  • and are wholly unable to perceive anything in it to be desired above “This is the day when King Owen’s relics shall be laid to rest in a foreign grave.”