By Stephen Basdeo
Dr Mark Truesdale and I are currently transcribing Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21), which was originally written in the summer of 1791.
Although in the marketing for our edition we have designated it as a novel, Southey’s text should be read more as a romance, a curious blend of the Gothic (which predominates whenever the outlaws leave the safety of Sherwood) and the pastoral, for in Sherwood an outlaw’s life is idyllic and divorced from the cares of the outside world.
In Southey’s text, the usual stock characters from Robin Hood tales can be found: Little John, Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, the Bishop of Hereford; there are also several new characters, many of whom are taken from early modern plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641).
In keeping with previous portrayals of the outlaw legend, Robin Hood and Maid Marian are in love. Yet they are star-crossed lovers: Marian is the daughter of the wicked Baron Fitzosborne—the man who murdered the good Harold’s father—and the Baron, the main villain of the tale, naturally objects to his daughter’s marrying an outlaw.
With such an impediment to their match, Robin kidnaps Marian when a jousting tournament is held at the Baron’s castle. The pair of them escape to Sherwood and immediately marry each other, presumably by Friar Tuck, although the marriage scene is not recorded in the novel and we jump to the post-nuptial feast scene.
After feasting on venison and ale—Southey has clearly done his Robin Hood homework—Robin asks for music to be played. What follows is the first of many instances throughout the novel where the young, barely 16-year-old Southey, exercises his budding poetical talents. In praise of the union between Robin and Marian, the Sherwood minstrel sings the following ballad:
Behold yon elm high towering lift his head
How brightly his foliage and how cool his shade
His branches wide and towering how they spread
And cast a grateful shadow o’er the glade.
Yet though he lift his head luxuriant high
And proudly seems to threat the neighbouring sky
Useless he flourishes there barren stands
Till doom’d to perish by the woodman’s hand.
Yet should some tender joy-inspiring wine
From some robuster tree that seeks support
Round his base trunk her circling arms entwine
The elm with pendant clusters black we see
The baron once now rich with choicest
Useless and barren were the elm alone
The vine unaided barren too had grown
Mutual assistance each to the other goes
And each by mutual kindness friended lives
Emblem expressive this of human life
The elm the husband and the vine the wife
How blest indeed the faces who truly know
The never ending bliss of wedded love.
Boudeville ended and received the applause of the whole company. Come Aeglamour, said Little John, try your skill and [illegible] happiness of the life we lead here. Were you once to experience the pleasures we enjoy, turning to Richard, you would love to die in the forest of merry Sherwood what are all the pleasures of a court to the pure entertainment of a country life! Richard was preparing to answer him when Aeglamour arose and began
Rises now with orient ray
Bright the gold on the orb of day
Aw’d by his effulgent light
Swiftly they the shades of night
On the leaves with silver hue
Glittering shines the pearly dew.
Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes
And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.
What pleasures can the palace yield
Equal to these woodlands give
How blissfully the outlaws live.
Who roams at will [o’er] field and hill
How happily dwell we in the wood
And o’er the flowery field
How happy live we in the wood.
Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.
The deer with spreading antlers crowned
Stalks stately o’er the bower.
The bowman fits his dart
And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart
He falls upon the ground
We hail the prize with choral strain
Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale
List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale
What pleasures can the palace yield?
Now we with sober mien comes
And darkness hides the sky
The labour of the day is done
And home the outlaws hie.
The cheerful dance and minstrels sing
The pleasures of the time prolong
We beat the ground with skilful [illegible]
With skill we separate with skill we meet
The wholesome beverage goes around
At last by calm repose the happy day is crown’d
What pleasures can the palace yield?
Low shouts of applause proclaimed the universal approbation. This is the life, said Robin Hood turning to Marian, this is the life we lead. You have exchanged pomp and pageantry for the wild uncultivated pleasures of simple nature. But they are pleasures which art can never equal. I have exchanged a life of trouble and of care replied Marian sweetly smiling for one of happiness of liberty of love. She looked tenderly upon her husband and blush’d. Robin kiss’d her to hide it. In the meantime Richard enquired of Little John who sat next to him the manner in which Marian had been so successfully carried off.[i]
Mark and I are, to put it mildly, very excited at the prospect of seeing Southey’s unpublished novel finally in book form. For now, let’s hope that this ‘sneak preview’ of it has whetted your appetites.
In the meantime, see some of my work on other eighteenth century portrayals of Robin Hood:
[i] Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791). Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21, ff. 11r–13r.