Chronicle of the Cid, by Robert Southey


Robert Southey’s “Chronicle of the Cid” is all translation from the Spanish, but is not translation from a single book. Its groundwork is that part of the Crónica General de España, the most ancient of the Prose Chronicles of Spain, in which adventures of the Cid are fully told. This old Chronicle was compiled in the reign of Alfonso the Wise, who was learned in the exact science of his time, and also a troubadour. Alfonso reigned between the years 1252 and 1284, and the Chronicle was written by the King himself, or under his immediate direction. It is in four parts. The first part extends from the Creation of the World to the occupation of Spain by the Visigoths, and is dull; the second part tells of the Goths in Spain and of the conquest of Spain by the Moors, and is less dull; the third part brings down the story of the nation to the reign of Ferdinand the Great, early in the eleventh century; and the fourth part continues it to the date of the accession of Alfonso himself in the year 1252. These latter parts are full of interest. Though in prose, they are based by a poet on heroic songs and national traditions of the struggle with the Moors, and the fourth part opens with an elaborate setting forth of the history of the great hero of mediaeval Spain, the Cid Campeador. The Cid is the King Arthur, or the Roland, of the Spaniards, less mythical, but not less interesting, with incidents of a real life seen through the warm haze of Southern imagination. King Alfonso, in his Chronicle, transformed ballads and fables of the Cid into a prose digest that was looked upon as history. Robert Southey translated this very distinct section of the Chronicle, not from the Crónica General itself, but from the Chronica del Cid, which, with small variation, was extracted from it, being one in substance with the history of the Cid in the fourth part of the General Chronicle, and he has enriched it. This he has done by going himself also to the Poem of the Cid and to the Ballads of the Cid, for incidents, descriptions, and turns of thought, to weave into the texture of the old prose Chronicle, brightening its tints, and adding new life to its scenes of Spanish chivalry.

“The Poem of the Cid,” the earliest and best of the heroic songs of Spain, is a romance of history in more than three thousand lines, celebrating the achievements of the hero little more than fifty years after his death. Ruy Diaz, or Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, was born at Burgos about the year 1040, and died in the year 1099. He was called the Cid, because five Moorish Kings acknowledged him in one battle as their Seid, or Lord and Conqueror, and he was Campeador or Champion of his countrymen against the Moors. Thus he was styled The Lord Champion —El Cid Campeador. The Cid died at the end of the eleventh century, and “The Poem of the Cid” was composed before the end of the twelfth. It was written after the year 1135, but before the year 1200.

The Cid is also the foremost hero of the ancient Spanish Ballads. The ballads invent or record more incidents of his life than are to be found in the Poem and the Chronicle; and of these Southey, in the translation here reprinted, has made frequent and skilful use. Thus it is from the Chronicle, the Poem, and the whole group of Ballads, as collated by an English poet with a fine relish for Spanish literature and a keen sense of the charm of old historical romance, that we get the translation from the Spanish which Southey published at the age of thirty-four, in the year 1808, as “The Chronicle of the Cid.”

Robert Southey was born at Bristol on the 12th of August, 1774. He was the son of an unprosperous linen-draper, and was cared for in his childhood and youth by two of his mother’s relations, a maiden aunt, with whom he lived as a child, and an uncle, the Rev. Herbert Hill, who assisted in providing for his education. Mr. Hill was Chaplain to the British Factory at Lisbon, and had a well-grounded faith in Southey’s genius and character. He secured for his nephew some years of education at Westminster School, and when Southey was expelled by an unwise headmaster for a boyish jest, his uncle’s faith in him held firm, and he was sent on to Balliol College, Oxford. Those were days of wild hope among the young. They felt all that was generous in the aspiration of idealists who saw the golden cities of the future in storm-clouds of revolution. Robert Southey at Oxford dreamed good dreams as a poetical Republican. He joined himself with other young students — Coleridge among them — who planned an experiment of their own in ideal life by the Susquehanna. He became engaged, therefore, at Bristol in mysterious confabulation with strange youths. This alarmed his maiden aunt. Uncle Hill, then in England, and about to return to his work at Lisbon, shrewdly proposed to set his nephew right, and draw him out of any confederacy that he might be in, by tempting him with an offer that would take strong hold of his imagination. He offered to take him for a run through Spain and Portugal. That was a chance not to be lost. Southey went to Lisbon with his uncle, but secured, before he went, the accomplishment of what he considered the best part of his design, by secretly marrying Miss Edith Fricker. During that first run over ground with which he became afterwards familiar, the young husband wrote letters to his wife, thriftily planned for future publication in aid of housekeeping. They were published in 1797, as “Letters from Spain and Portugal.” It was thus that Southey was first drawn to Spanish studies. When he came back, and had to tell his aunt that he was married, he and his wife were thrown upon their own resources. He worked manfully; his uncle still abiding by him. In 1800 Southey went with his wife to visit Mr. Hill, in Lisbon.

While winning his place among the English poets, Robert Southey more than once turned to account his Spanish studies. He produced versions of the old Spanish romances of chivalry. “Amadis of Gaul” he published in 1803, and in 1807 “Palmerin of England.” In 1807 he also published “Espriella’s Letters,” an original book of his own, professing to translate the letters of a Spaniard, who gave, as a traveller, his view of life in England. This was a pleasant book, designed, like Goldsmith’s “Citizen of the World,” to help us to see ourselves as others see us. In the following year, 1808, Southey — already known as the author of “Thalaba,” published in 1802, and of “Madoc,” published in 1805 — produced this “Chronicle of the Cid.” It was a time for him of energetic production and of active struggle, with a manly patience to sustain it through years rich in gentle thoughts and kindly deeds that kept his heart at rest. Sara Coleridge, to whom Southey was giving a father’s care and shelter in the days when the Chronicle was being prepared, saw in him “upon the whole the best man she had ever known.” All qualities that should make a good translator of such a Chronicle as this were joined in Robert Southey. As for the true Cid, let us not ask whether he was ever — as M. Dozy, in his excellent Recherches sur l’Histoire Politique et Líttéraíre de l’Espagne pendant le Moyen Age, says that he could be-treacherous and cruel. What lives of him is all that can take form as part of the life of an old and haughty nation, proud in arms. Let the rest die.


August, 1883.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59