Sir Thomas Malory: The Critical Heritage

By Marylyn Parins | Go to book overview
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13.

Robert Southey

1817

Robert Southey (1774-1843) had planned a new edition of Malory as early as 1807, but the project was long delayed (see Introduction, pp. 6-7, and Scott, No. 9). Letters of this period indicate ambitious plans for a history of Arthur drawn from Welsh sources as well as a chapter-by-chapter source study using the French romances. The introduction and notes that appeared with the edition of 1817 did not fulfil these aims, but they do offer the first systematic attempt to identify many of Malory’s sources.

Although Southey admits to a great fondness for the Morte Darthur in his youth, his adult estimate of the narrative method of romance and of some of its incidents is not high. Some of Southey’s statements about Malory and the Morte Darthur are inaccurate, but no more so than other commentaries of the period. Some examples are the statement in section XI that Ector’s lament is from the French Lancelot (it is Malory’s addition) and the assumption that Malory drew on late compilations like that of Rusticien (see also Madden, No. 15). The statement in section XVIII that the text is a scrupulous rendering of Caxton is not quite true either (see Strachey’s 1868 preface, extracted in No. 28 below and de Worde, No. 2 above). Southey’s preface is divided into twenty-one sections, perhaps in imitation of Caxton (the divisions seem a bit arbitrary); some sections are merely summarized below. (London: Longman, et al., 1817), I, i-xxxii.

I. Rich as the English is in every other branch of literature, it is peculiarly deficient in prose romances of chivalry, a species of composition in which the Portugueze and the French have excelled all other nations. The cause of this deficiency may perhaps be found in our history. At a time when the feelings and fashion of the age tended to produce and encourage such works, and when the master-pieces in this kind were composed, our language had not

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