354. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 29 October 1798

354. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 29 October 1798 ⁠* 

A Ballad

Shewing how an Old Woman rode double, & who rode before her.


the story in the xxxxx xxxxxxxxxx <Liber Cronicarum> printed at Nuremberg 1498, with a wood cut; in Olaus Magnus, & more at large in Matthew of Westminster. [1] 


The Raven croakd as she sate at her meal
And the Old woman knew what he said,
And she grew pale at the Ravens tale
And sickend & went to her bed.

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

The Monk her son & her daughter the Nun
Their way to Berkeley went
And they have brought to with pious thought
The holy sacrament.

The Old Woman shriekd as they enterd 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 lookd at her children with ghastly eyes,
And faintly struggled to speak.

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

I have suckd 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 mans 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 chained in my coffin of stone,
And fasten it strong I implore
With iron bars & let it be chaind
With three chains to the church floor.

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

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

And let the church bells all both great & small
Be tolld by night & day,
To drive from thence the fiends who come
To bear my corpse away.

And ever have the church door barrd
After the even-song;
And I beseech you children dear
Let the bars & bolts be strong.

And let this be three days & 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,
Her eyes grew deadly dim,
Short came her breath, & the struggle of death
Distorted every limb.

They blest the Old Womans winding sheet
With rites & prayers due,
With holy water they sprinkled her shroud,
And they sprinkled her coffin too.

And they chaind her in her coffin of stone
And with iron barrd it down.
And in the church with three strong chains
They chaind it to the ground.

And they blest the chains & sprinkled them,
And fifty priests stood round,
By night & 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 & Choristers
It was a goodly sight,
Each holding, as it were a staff,
A taper burning bright.

And the church bells all, both great & small
Did toll so loud & long,
And they have barrd the church door firm
After the even-song.

And the first night the tapers light
Burnt steadily & 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 prayed & the Choristers sung
Louder in fearful zeal.

Loud tolld the bell, the priests prayd well,
The tapers they burnt bright,
The Monk her son & 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 undisturbd the choristers sing
And the fifty priests they pray.

The second night the tapers light
Burnt dismally & blue,
And every one saw his neighbours face
Like a dead mans face to view.

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

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

Louder & louder the choristers sung
As they trembled more & 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 undisturbd the choristers sing
And the fifty priests they pray.

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

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

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

The monk & nun forgot their beads,
They fell on the ground dismayed,
There was not a single Saint in Heaven
Whom they did not call to aid.

The choristers song their fear was so strong
Faltered with trepidation,
For the church did rock as an earthquake shock
Uplifted its foundation.

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

And the tapers light was extinguishd quite,
And the Choristers faintly sung,
And the Priests dismayed panted & prayed
Till terror 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 burning firey furnace red.

He laid his hand on the iron chains,
And like flax they mouldered asunder,
And the coffin lid that was barrd 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 sweat did stand on the cold corpse
At the voice she was forced to obey.

She rose on her feet in her winding sheet,
Her cold 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 a furnace smoke,
His eyes like a meteors glare.

The Fiend with force flung her on the horse
And he leapt up before,
And away like the lightnings speed they went,
And she was seen no more.

They saw her no more but her cries & shrieks
For four miles round they could hear,
And children at rest at their mothers breast
Startled <Started> & screamd with fear. [2] 


You ask me respecting your brothers inscriptions. [3]  they never reached me. I received no letter from you during your stay in Ireland. about Messrs Burrows & Armitt [4]  the blunder was not mine – you sent me only their names. was I to direct Dublin or Cork or Belfast? I could not guess.

I shall be in town the 13th of next month. Blackstone Coke & Boote [5]  are all the Law Books I have & those I have read till I am tired – which however does not necessarily imply much reading. I have read them till I find nothing new strike me, but it does not lay hold of my memory. that see[MS torn] like the King of Portugals sieve, [6]  it holds large jewels but the rubbish runs thro. I am anxious to be settled, but my views begin again to grow uncertain. Edith is again very unwell. her constitution is very weak indeed, & I dread the effects of London air & London confinement. it will certainly be right to try how she bears London before I go enter an office. When I see you I will talk more fully upon the subject. I cannot move freely; my mother is with me, & a cousin, a poor girl, disabled by the frequente returns of a disease almost as dreadful as the leprosy, from providing for herself. my brother Harry too has only me to look to. from my Uncle I expect some assistance, but as yet have had none, & he has not much in his power. with these expences I have kept pace, & can support them, but it is only by giving up more time to, to money [MS obscured] scribbling than it would be right in other circumstances to give. on this account I add pieces enough to my Vision to make a second volume, [7]  as I told you. this is in the Press, & will do me credit I think, I calculate my profits at forty pounds.

My brother Tom is on board Lord Bridports ship. [8]  this removal he owes to the engagement, but he expects nothing more as Ld B. is about to strike his flag. I am certainly very proud of my brother, but not for the engagement. he is a fine, affectionate, spirited young man, who has struggled thro many disadvantages & difficulties, & has all the good parts of a [MS obscured] without any of the bad ones. he will I doubt not do well. my two other brothers [9]  will have fewer disadvantages, but I shall be very happy if they succeed <turn out> as well. Nature has done much for them

I think it would be well if I could get a play upon the stage. this is mentioned not as a serious thought yet – but what would be one if you encouraged it. you know with what rapidity I write – after chusing a subject it would not employ me more than a month. this is the only profitable mode of writing – here the profits are more than they ought to be, for every thing else less. the profits of a play are from 2 to 700 pounds. do you think it a lottery worth adventuring in? my name would forward it with a manager, & might be kept secret not to injure it with the Anti Jacobines & English Orange men. I think xxxxx a good play would succeed if assisted by spectacle. now here is an egg laid which you may either crush or hatch in a moment.

You will I think be pleased with my English Eclogues. [10]  they are dramatically good, & some of them satisfy me more than most of my smaller pieces. they are all serious, but sufficiently diversif[MS obscured] in subject. I have a fine plan for a romantic poem The Destruction of the Dom Daniel [11]  – if I had leisure it should prove that I do not reject machinery in the epic from poverty of invention, but can wield the wand of enchantment at least as ably as Wieland. [12] 

I thank you for your account of Carnedd, [13]  the superstition of the flame strikes me as the see[MS obscured] of a ballad. [14]  you will be amused with the following proof of p peasant ignorance. it is strictly true. A clergyman, a friend of mine, was walking over his fields with one of his parishioners, & noticed some fairy rings on the grass. Ah, said the man, they be what the fairies makes ... we do not see em now, but they were seen often enough in the olden times. What do you mean by the olden times? said the clergyman. why olden times – the times of the scriptures. you do read about em in the bible. no, he answerd, I am sure theres nothing said of them in the bible. Oh yes there is. I’ve heard you read about em very often. about the Scribes & Phārisees you know. Must not this man have had fine ideas of the New Testament?

God bless you

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

Westbury. Oct. 29. 98.

Your last was franked Wrexham & put into the office at Chester.


* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr/ Wynnstay/ Wrexham/ Denbighshire
Stamped: BRISTOL
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4819E. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514), Liber Chronicorum (popularly known in English as the Nuremberg Chronicle) (1493, but many subsequent editions); Olaus Magnus (1490–1557), Swedish ecclesiastic and writer, Historia de Gentibus Septsentrionalibus (1555), Book III, chapter 20; Matthew of Westminster, alleged author of the Flores Historiarum, the name given to a number of different manuscript chronicles of English history in Latin, from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (see C. D. Yonge, The Flowers of History, 2 vols (1853), I, pp. 400–401). BACK

[2] The Raven ... screamd with fear: Verse written in double columns. BACK

[3] Presumably either poems written by Sir Watkin Williams Wynn (1772–1840), Charles Wynn’s elder brother, or information about inscriptions the Baronet wished to commission from Southey. BACK

[4] Unidentified; presumably friends or acquaintances of Charles Watkin Williams Wynn who had requested copies of Southey’s published writings. BACK

[5] William Blackstone (1723–1780; DNB), Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769); Edward Coke (1552–1643; DNB), Institutes of the Laws of England (1628–1644); and Richard Boote (d. 1782), An Historical Treatise of an Action or Suit at Law (1766). BACK

[6] Unidentified. BACK

[7] Poems (1799), which included the ‘Vision of the Maid of Orleans’. BACK

[8] The Royal George. BACK

[10] Six ‘English Eclogues’ were published in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. [181]–232. BACK

[11] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). See Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 181–188 for Southey’s initial plan of the poem. BACK

[12] Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813), German poet. BACK

[13] Welsh for ‘tomb’, ‘cairn’ or ‘mountain’. BACK

[14] In Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 96, Southey records the Welsh superstition that a lambent blue flame would be seen over the burial place of a murder victim. BACK

Places mentioned

Westbury (mentioned 1 time)