Thursday, 15 January 2015

Southey's Ballad on The Witch of Berkeley, 1799

The third thread in the history of my page from Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) involves Robert Southey (1774–1843). (See here and here for my previous posts.) In 1778, Southey wrote "A Ballad. Shewing how an old woman rode double, and who rode before her." The ballad—based on William of Malmesbury's story—appears in Poems By Robert Southey, The Second Volume (Bristol: Biggs and Cottle for T. N. Longman, 1799), 143–60 (Pennsylvania State University copy, here).

Southey mentions his ballad in a letter to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn (17 December 1798; see here):

I mentioned to [Joseph] Cottle what [Mathew] Lewis wished about my Ballads,* for the copyright is his. He referred it entirely to me, but seemed convinced that to let them be printed elsewhere would injure the sale materially. I thought so too, so he must not have the Old Woman [i.e., the ballad]. In my next I will send you the wood cut, the Devil is done as well as if the Pious Painter had made the drawing from the life.

*seemingly, that Lewis wanted Southey's "Ballad" to appear in his Tales of Wonder, which it did! See Tales of Wonder (1801), 1.164–74 (Harvard University copy here).


The woodcut that Southey mentions in his letter was reproduced in his Poems (it is not clear who the artist was who copied the image. As you can see above, at bottom left, the image is signed "M [and] W Fecit") and appears at the start of his ballad, followed by a lengthy quote, in Latin, from Roger of Wendover, "De quadam muliere sortilega, et ejus miserabili morte" [Of a certain witch, and her miserable death]—for which, see my first post here. Southey mis-ascribes the Latin to the mythical Mathew of Westminster, then comments: "This story is also related by Olaus Magnus, and in the Nuremberg Chronicle, from which the wooden cut is taken"

* * * * *

Although Southey was Poet Laureate for thirty years, he is not very highly regarded and his ballad—which is certainly entertaining—seems to have attracted little attention from critics. The attention that Southey does receive today is often negative. Wikipedia attempts to gloss over his conservative toadying, but it is impossible to ignore his wrong-headedness. In the same letter quoted above, Southey describes Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"—a ballad infinitely better than his own—as "nonsense". And he famously advised Charlotte Brontë that "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life."

Christopher J. P. Smith A Quest for Home: Reading Robert Southey (1997), 289–92 (here) contains a few pages of discussion on this ballad. Smith, disregarding Southey's own statement, mis-describes his ballad as an "adaptation of a story from Olaus Magnus" and then mis-represents it as "another supernatural revenge, a fashionable abduction story, like … Lenore of Bürger" (289). Smith concludes his helpful discussion by noting that Southey's "The Surgeon's Warning" is a parody of this "lively, episodic tale" (292), from which, it seems, Southey didn't take his own ballad too seriously. And probably didn't expect his readers to do so either.

* * * * *


Shewing How An Old Woman Rode Double,
And Who Rode Before Her.


The Raven croak'd as she sate at her meal,
  And the Old Woman knew what he said,
And she grew pale at the Raven's tale,
  And sicken'd and went to her bed.

Now fetch me my children, and fetch them with speed.
  The Old Woman of Berkeley said,
The monk my son, and my daughter the nun
  Bid them hasten or I shall be dead.

The monk her son, and her daughter the nun,
  Their way to Berkeley went,
And they have brought with pious thought
  The holy sacrament.

The old Woman shriek'd as they entered her door,
  Twas fearful her shrieks to hear,
Now take the sacrament away
  For mercy, my children dear!

Her lip it trembled with agony,
  The sweat ran down her brow,
I have tortures in store for evermore,
  Oh! spare me my children now!

Away they sent the sacrament,
  The fit it left her weak,
She look'd at her children with ghastly eyes
  And faintly struggled to speak.

All kind of sin I have rioted in
  And the judgment now must be,
But I secured my childrens souls,
  Oh! pray my children for me.

I have suck'd the breath of sleeping babes,
  The fiends have been my slaves,
I have nointed myself with infants fat,
  And feasted on rifled graves.

And the fiend will fetch me now in fire
  My witchcrafts to atone,
And I who have rifled the dead man's grave
  Shall never have rest in my own.

Bless I intreat my winding sheet
  My children I beg of you!
And with holy water sprinkle my shroud
  And sprinkle my coffin too.

And let me be chain'd in my coffin of stone
  And fasten it strong I implore
With iron bars, and let it be chain'd
  With three chains to the church floor.

And bless the chains and sprinkle them,
  And let fifty priests stand round,
Who night and day the mass may say
  Where I lie on the ground.

And let fifty choristers be there
  The funeral dirge to sing,
Who day and night by the taper's light
  Their aid to me may bring.

Let the church bells all both great and small
  Be toll'd by night and day,
To drive from thence the fiends who come
  To bear my corpse away.

And ever have the church door barr'd
  After the even song,
And I beseech you children dear
  Let the bars and bolts be strong.

And let this be three days and nights
  My wretched corpse to save,
Preserve me so long from the fiendish throng
  And then I may rest in my grave.

The Old Woman of Berkeley laid her down
  And her eyes grew deadly dim,
Short came her breath and the struggle of death
  Did loosen every limb.

They blest the old woman's winding sheet
  With rites and prayers as due,
With holy water they sprinkled her shroud
  And they sprinkled her coffin too.

And they chain'd her in her coffin of stone
  And with iron barr'd it down,
And in the church with three strong chains
  They chain'd it to the ground.

And they blest the chains and sprinkled them,
  And fifty priests stood round,
By night and day the mass to say
  Where she lay on the ground.

And fifty choristers were there
  To sing the funeral song,
And a hallowed taper blazed in the hand
  Of all the sacred throng.

To see the priests and choristers
  It was a goodly sight,
Each holding, as it were a staff,
  A taper burning bright.

And the church bells all both great and small
  Did toll so loud and long,
And they have barr'd the church door hard
  After the even song.

And the first night the taper's light
  Burnt steadily and clear,
But they without a hideous rout
  Of angry fiends could hear;

A hideous roar at the church door
  Like a long thunder peal,
And the priests they pray'd and the choristers sung
  Louder in fearful zeal.

Loud toll'd the bell, the priests pray'd well,
  The tapers they burnt bright,
The monk her son, and her daughter the nun
  They told their beads all night.

The cock he crew, away they flew
  The fiends from the herald of day,
And undisturb'd the choristers sing
  And the fifty priests they pray.

The second night the taper's light
  Burnt dismally and blue,
And every one saw his neighbour's face   
  Like a dead man's face to view.

And yells and cries without arise
  That the stoutest heart might shock,
And a deafening roaring like a cataract pouring
  Over a mountain rock.   

The monk and nun they told their beads
  As fast as they could tell,
And aye as louder grew the noise
  The faster went the bell.

Louder and louder the choristers sung
  As they trembled more and more,
And the fifty priests prayed to heaven for aid,
  They never had prayed so before.

The cock he crew, away they flew
  The fiends from the herald of day,
And undisturb'd the choristers sing
  And the fifty priests they pray.

The third night came and the tapers flame
  A hideous stench did make,
And they burnt as though they had been dipt
  In the burning brimstone lake.

And the loud commotion, like the rushing of ocean.
  Grew momently more and more,
And strokes as of a battering ram
  Did shake the strong church door.

The bellmen they for very fear
  Could toll the bell no longer,
And still as louder grew the strokes
  Their fear it grew the stronger.

The monk and nun forgot their beads,
  They fell on the ground dismay'd,
There was not a single saint in heaven
  Whom they did not call to aid.

And the choristers song that late was so strong
  Grew a quaver of consternation,
For the church did rock as an earthquake shock
  Uplifted its foundation.

And a sound was heard like the trumpet's blast
  That shall one day wake the dead,
The strong church door could bear no more
  And the bolts and the bars they fled.

And the taper's light was extinguish'd quite,
  And the choristers faintly sung,
And the priests dismay'd, panted and prayed
  Till fear froze every tongue.

And in He came with eyes of flame
  The Fiend to fetch the dead,
And all the church with his presence glowed
  Like a fiery furnace red.

He laid his hand on the iron chains
  And like flax they moulder'd asunder,
And the coffin lid that was barr'd so firm
  He burst with his voice of thunder.

And he bade the Old Woman of Berkeley rise
  And come with her master away,
And the cold sweat stood on the cold cold corpse,
  At the voice she was forced to obey.

She rose on her feet in her winding sheet,
  Her dead flesh quivered with fear,
And a groan like that which the Old Woman gave
  Never did mortal hear.

She followed the fiend to the church door,
  There stood a black horse there,
His breath was red like furnace smoke,
  His eyes like a meteor's glare.

The fiendish force flung her on the horse
  And he leapt up before,
And away like the lightning's speed they went
  And she was seen no more.

They saw her no more, but her cries and shrieks
  For four miles round they could hear,
And children at rest at their mother's breast,
  Started and screamed with fear.

No comments: