Robert Southey: Jaspar

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OST interesting, perhaps, is "Jaspar," a ballad whose theme recalls Wordsworth's early play The Borderers. A ruffian who had years before killed and robbed a man persuades a hard-pressed laborer to commit a like crime in order to gain a companion in guilt and damnation. The two men lay their ambush at the place of the old crime; but Jonathan, unlike the obdurate Jaspar years before, is softened by nocturnal Nature's peaceful sounds and begins to fear the all-seeing eye of Cod. Jaspar assures him that "Nor eye above nor eye below / Can pierce the darkness here; but, as he speaks, a "sudden light, / Strong as the midday sun" falls on the spot. "It hung upon the willow-tree; / It hung upon the flood; / It gave to view the poplar isle, / And all the scene of blood." The light may have been lightning — the night was wan and starless — but Jaspar turns into a maniac who forever haunts — heedless of "the summer suns, the winter storms'—the scene of his crime. The ballad is told with economy and a sense of symmetry, and the ambiguity of the denouement saves it from mere melodrama.

Ernest Bernhardt-Kabish


Robert Southey
1774-1843
JASPAR was poor, and vice and want 
   Had made his heart like stone;
And Jaspar look'd with envious eyes 
   On riches not his own.

On plunder bent, abroad he went 
   Toward the close of day,
And loiter'd on the lonely road 
   Impatient for his prey.

No traveller came — he loiter'd long, 
   And often look'd around,
And paused and listen'd eagerly 
   To catch some coming sound.

He sat him down beside the stream 
   That cross'd the lonely way ;
So fair a scene might well have charm'd 
   All evil thoughts away.

He sat beneath a willow-tree, 
   Which cast a trembling shade;
The gentle river, full in front, 
   A little island made, —

Where pleasantly the moonbeam shone 
   Upon the poplar-trees,
Whose shadow on the stream below 
   Play'd slowly to the breeze.

He listen'd — and he heard the wind 
   That waved the willow-tree;
He heard the waters flow along, 
   And murmur quietly.

He listen'd for the traveller's tread; 
   The nightingale sung sweet; —
He started up, for now he heard 
   The sound of coming feet; —

He started up, and grasp'd a stake, 
   And waited for his prey;
There came a lonely traveller, 
   And Jaspar cross'd his way.

But Jaspar's threats and curses fail'd 
   The traveller to appall;
He would not lightly yield the purse 
   Which held his little all.

Awhile he struggled ; but he strove 
   With Jaspar's strength in vain;
Beneath his blows he fell, and groan'd, 
   And never spake again.

Jaspar raised up the murder'd man, 
   And plunged him in the flood,
And in the running water then 
   He cleansed his hands from blood.

The waters closed around the corpse, 
   And cleansed his hands from gore;
The willow waved, the stream flow'd on, 
   And murmured as before.

There was no human eye had seen 
   The blood the murderer spilt,
And Jaspar's conscience never felt 
   The avenging goad of guilt.

And soon the ruffian had consumed 
   The gold he gain'd so ill;
And years of secret guilt pass'd on, 
   And he was needy still.

One eve, beside the alehouse fire 
   He sat, as it befell,
When in there came a laboring man 
   Whom Jaspar knew full well.

He sat him down by Jaspar's side, 
   A melancholy man;
For, spite of honest toil, the world 
   Went hard with Jonathan.

His toil a little earn'd, and ho 
   With little was content;
But sickness on his wife had fallen, 
   And all was wellnigh spent.

Long with his wife and little ones 
   He shared the scanty meal,
And saw their looks of wretchedness, 
   And felt what wretches feel.

Their Landlord, a hard man, that day 
   Had seized the little left;
And now the sufferer found himself 
   Of every thing bereft.

He lean'd his head upon his hand, 
   His elbow on his knee;
And so by Jaspar's side he sat, 
   And not a word said he.

"Nay, — why so downcast?" Jaspar cried,
   "Come — cheer up, Jonathan ! 
Drink, neighbor, drink! 'twill warm thy heart; 
   Come! come! take courage, man!"

He took the cup that Jaspar gave, 
   And down he drain'd it quick; 
"I have a wife," said Jonathan, 
   "And she is deadly sick.

"She has no bed to lie upon;
   I saw them take her bed — 
And I have children — would to God 
   That they and I were dead!

"Our Landlord he goes home to-night,
   And he will sleep in peace — 
I would that I were in my grave, 
   For there all troubles cease.

"In vain I pray'd him to forbear, 
   Though wealth enough has he! 
God be to him as merciless 
   As he has been to me!"

When Jaspar saw the poor man's soul
   On all his ills intent, 
He plied him with the heartening cup, 
   And with him forth he went.

"This Landlord on his homeward road
   'Twere easy now to meet. 
The road is lonesome, Jonathan! — 
   And vengeance, man! is sweet."

He listen'd to the tempter's voice;
   The thought it made him start; — 
His head was hot, and wretchedness 
   Had harden'd now his heart.

Along the lonely road they went,
   And waited for their prey; 
They sat them down beside the stream 
   That croas'd the lonely way.

They sat them down beside the stream,
   And never a word they said; 
They sat and listen'd silently 
   To hear the traveller's tread.

The night was calm; the night was dark ;
   No star was in the sky; 
The wind it waved the willow boughs; 
   The stream flow'd quietly.

The night was calm; the air was still;
   Sweet sung the nightingale; 
The soul of Jonathan was soothed; 
   His heart began to fail.

" 'Tis weary wailing here," he cried,
   "And now the hour is late; 
Methinks he will not come to-night; 
   No longer let us wait."

"Have patience, man! " the ruffian said;
   "A little we may wait; 
But longer shall his wife expect 
   Her husband at the gate,"

Then Jonathan grew sick at heart;
   "My conscience yet is clear; 
Jaspar — it is not yet too late — 
   I will not linger here."

"How now!" cried Jaspar; "why, I thought
   Thy conscience was asleep; 
No more such qualms; the night is dark; 
   The river here is deep."

"What matters that," said Jonathan,
   Whose blood began to freeze, 
"When there is One above, whose eye 
   The deeds of darkness sees?"

"We are safe enough," said Jaspar then,
   "If that be all thy fear; 
Nor eye above, nor eye below, 
   Can pierce the darkness here."

That instant, as the murderer spake,
   There came a sudden light; 
Strong as the mid-day sun it shone, 
   Though all around was night.

It hung upon the willow-tree ;
   It hung upon the flood;
It gave to view the poplar isle, 
   And all the scene of blood.

The traveller who journeys there,
   He surely hath espied 
A madman who has made his home 
   Upon the river's side.

His cheek is pale; his eye is wild;
   His looks bespeak despair; 
For Jaspar, since that hour, has made 
   His home, unshelter'd, there.

And fearful are his dreams at night,
   And dread to him the day; 
He thinks upon his untold crime, 
   And never dares to pray.

The summer suns, the winter storms,
   O'er him unheeded roll; 
For heavy is the weight of blood 
   Upon the maniac's soul.

Bath, 1798.