18th century

A Never-Before-Seen Poem by Robert Southey, written in 1791 | Stephen Basdeo and Mark Truesdale

Edited by Stephen Basdeo and Mark Truesdale

The summer of 1791 was an unusually wet one. The young schoolboy, and future Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, therefore had a lot of time on his hands. It was probably the weather that induced him to stay inside longer than usual and write a romance entitled “Harold; or, The Castle of Morford” (Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e.21. Summary Catalogue 31777).


Robert Southey

Mark Truesdale (the brilliant expert of medieval and early modern literature) and Stephen Basdeo (a lover of Romantic and eighteenth-century literary and book history) have recently transcribed Southey’s novel—the equivalent of the three volume novel—and it is due for publication with Routledge in early 2020. Southey had written a number of poems for his novel which never made it into subsequent collections of his works.

Curiously, although “Harold” is a Robin Hood novel, he never actually wrote a Robin Hood poem for this text but instead drew upon the Arthurian tradition. In the poem below, Southey adapts the Tristan and Isolde. All of his youthful, idiosyncratic spelling mistakes, grammatical peculiarities, and odd spelling mistakes have been retained.


“Harold; or, The Castle of Morford.” Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e.21 (Summary Catalogue 31777)

“Harold; or The Castle of Morford.”

Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e.21 (Summary Catalogue 31777) fols. 101–05:

The morn was fair & all around

No cloud obscurd the view

Soft oer the flowr enamelld plain

The gentle zephyr blew.

On every herb & every tree

Shot bright the sun his ray

All nature seemd to smile around

So cheering was the day.

Sir Tristram on his stately steed

Rode sad & slow along

Nor did he cast one look around

Nor heed the blackbirds song

For pensive was the warriors heart

And ever would he sigh

And ever would exclaim Would God

La Belle Isonde were by

(Who has not heard the minstrel song

Of bold Sir Tristram tell?

How journeying from Iernes[i] shore

He drank the fatal spell?)[ii]

Were my La Belle Isonde but here

How happy should I be

Then absent though all nature smile

She smiles in vain for me

But soon arose a different scene

Before the warriors eyes[iii]

No more in sweet progression now

Hills dales & woods arise

Around a vast & barren plain

He cast his searching eye

But all in vain – nor hill nor dale

Nor tree nor shrub were nigh

Save where aloft in sullen state

Appeard the baleful yew

And where the cypress mournful tree

In solemn verdure grew[iv]

At distance far a rock sublime

Upreard its stately head

So high it towred that lowring clouds

Upon its top were spread –

The Knight in silent wonder gazd

To view the wondrous height

The towring summit reachd beyond

Poor feeble mortals sight

I will ascend the warrior cried

Perchance it may afford

Some bright adventure unatchievd

And worthy Tristrams sword

Rough was the rock & steep the sides

And perilous the way

For oft across the path perplexed

Huge rocks unsettled lay

And ever & anon would fall

With [hideous?][v] clamour bound

And oft beneath the warriors feet

Deep groand the enchanted ground

Cautious before his steps he held

His iron pointed spear

For prudence was the warriors praise

& Tristram could not fear

And oft huge caverns would he find

Oppose his dangerous way

And many a tottring rock before

Terrifick dreadful lay

A furious lyon from the den

Rushd forth upon the knight

Sir Tristram forward held his lance

Confiding in his might

Against the tawny monsters skin

The spear in shivers broke

On rushd the beast the Knight steppd back

And seizd a loosend rock

Rough craggy pointed in his h&

He poised the pondrous stone

Not ten men now could lift the mass

He hurld with ease the stone

Harmless from him the pondrous stone

Rebounded back again

And rushing with a hideous crush

Swift rolling reacd[vi] the plain

The Knight advanced & seizd the brute

Than[vii] whirled him down a cave

The fall resounding from the vault

A dreary echoe gave

On he advanced beneath his feet

Gave way the faithless ground

Descending in some spirits arms

He heard a mingled sound

Up the tremendous steep ascent

The warriors[viii] cast his eyes

So deep the cave that seemd from thence

The stars illumd the skies

When lo a heavenly voice exclaimd

Exert your utmost might

Prove well your courage & your love

In every dangerous fight

Again the Lion rushing forth

Swift sprung upon the Knight

Sir Tristram caught him in his arms

And straind with all his might.

So long he held the beast at length

The vital spirit fled

Extended lay upon the earth

The enchanted monster dead

When lo a Knight in arms appeared

For in the cave profound

A carbuncle with brilliance sheen

Diffused a light around

Fell traitorous villain Traitor stay

Exclaimd the hostile Knight

Nor think nor touch La Belle Isond

Nor think to fly the fight

Sir Tristram saw the cruel Mark

La Belle Isonde be mine

He cried & all the meed[ix] deservd

Of villainy be thine

As when two bulls the fiercest two

Of all the herd wage war

They foam they roar they lash the air

The others stand afar

Sir Tristram & his daring foe

Together rushd with rage

Nor ever did two braver Knights

With direr force engage.

Hold Tristram thus the voice returned

The causeless battle end

Hold Launcelot du Lake thy hand

Nor harm thy dearest friend

Art thou Sir Tristram swift exclaimd

Amazed his valorous foe

If thou best thee excuse my rage

That sought to lay thee lay[x]

Methought that here the recriant Knight

Sir Breuse sans pittie[xi] stood

Preparing to imbue his hand

In beauteous Isonds blood

Forgive thou too my heedless rage

Sir Tristram made reply

For rather than have harmed my friend

How gladly would I die


[i] Ireland.

[ii] In the medieval romance, Tristan is escorting Iseult across the sea to marry his uncle King Mark of Cornwall when the pair accidentally drink from a love potion and so begin their passionate and ultimately tragic affair.

[iii] Manuscript reads: “But soon arose a different scene / Before the warriors eyes / Arose a different scene.” Southey has written an additional squiggle (or possibly an “in”) over the first deleted line, seemingly indicating it should be restored. To maintain the flow of the poem the editors have chosen to retain the first deleted line.

[iv] Both yew and cypress trees are commonly associated with the dead, cemeteries, and rituals of mourning.

[v] The word “hideous” is struck through, but the replacement word or words above it are illegible.

[vi] For “reached”.

[vii] For “then”.

[viii] For “warrior”.

[ix] A person’s deserved share of praise or blame.

[x] For “low”.

[xi] Sir Brewnys Saunze Pité is a villainous knight in Thomas Malory’s tale of “Syr Tristrams de Lyones” in Le Morte Darthur.

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