1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

E. R., "Memoirs of Robert Southey" Monthly Magazine and American Review 3 (October 1800) 293-97.



The subject of the present memoir, though a very young person, and of a retired disposition, is justly entitled to a place among the public characters of his country, being well known as a man of letters, but more particularly as a poet. His largest poem, Joan of Arc, was written by him at an earlier period than Lucan wrote his Pharsalia. Like the Roman poet, too, the author is a strenuous asserter of liberty.

Mr. Robert Southey was born at Bristol, August the 12th, 1774. His father was a linen-draper in that town, a man who had been so accustomed to regulate his motions by the neighbouring clock, that the clock might at length (so punctual were his movements) have been regulated by him. He was also extremely fond of the country and its employments.

The spirit of the father rested on the son; for the father's favourite instructions to all around him were, to tie the stockings up tight, and to be punctual. Robert, to this day, is said to tie up his stockings very tight, even unwholesomely, and in engagements is punctual to a minute. His poetry, too, is very conversant in rural objects. The father, though a worthy man, was unfortunate, and died of a broken heart in consequence of embarrassments.

At six years of age, young Southey went to the school kept by Mr. Foot, at Bristol, and which is now ably managed by Mr. Estlin, and one of the most respectable dissenting academies in this country. At the death of Mr. Foot, he was removed to Carston, near Bath. He left Carston when he was eight years of age. The re-visiting of this place gave birth to some of those feelings expressed in that pleasing poem entitled The Retrospect, published in a volume printed in 1795, the joint production of our author and his friend Robert Lovel.

Southey continued at a day-school in Bristol till he was thirteen years of age, and wrote rhymes when he was but ten. He was also taught by his aunt to relish Shakspeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher. For one year he was under a clergyman, who taught a select number of pupils for a few hours in the morning. At fourteen, he was removed to Westminster-School.

At this school he continued, in the practice of the public schools, to write bad Latin verses; his English verses were more decent, and indicated that the author might, in future life, reach excellence. He continued to abide by his father's rules for punctuality, and is said never to have undergone any corporeal punishment; he, however, it seems, possessed sympathies with such as did, and wrote some essays in a periodical paper entitled The Flagellant.

Robert was entered at Baliol-College, Oxford, in November 1792. His turn of mind was serious, his affection ardent, and he became a republican. He, to this day, is proud of being thought a republican, and not without reason. For, contrary to the opinions of some, politics, the most important of morals, is, in a high degree, favourable to poetic genius; and some of the best poets have been the most enlightened advocates of freedom. The book that most influenced his judgment was Mr. Godwin's Political Justice. In the summer of this year he became acquainted with Mr. Coleridge, a student at that time of Jesus' College, Cambridge, and who was then on a visit to a friend at Oxford. Coleridge, no less than Southey, possessed a strong passion for poetry. They commenced, like two young poets, an enthusiastic friendship, and, in conjunction with others, struck out a plan for settling in America, and for having all things in common. This scheme they called Pantisocracy, of which, however visionary it may be thought by some, Southey still approves the theory.

Southey first became acquainted with Lovel in 1793. The three young poetical friends, Lovel, Southey, and Coleridge, married three sisters. Southey is attached to domestic life, and, fortunately, was very happy in his matrimonial connection. He married ill November, 1795, just before he left England to accompany his uncle to Spain and Portugal. He continued abroad six months.

Of his religious sentiments we shall say but little. Poets are often the children of fancy rather than of reason; and whether they are Deists, Socinians or Calvinists, correct inquirers will not regulate their judgments by the writings of poets. It seems, however, Southey was once a Deist; then he became a Socinian; though several sentiments contained in the Joan of Arc are scarcely reconcileable with the belief of a Socinian. Whatever his religious persuasions, however, may be, he is tolerant in principle, and destitute of bigotry; he shuns close argument, and professes to know little of metaphysics. Whatever his opinions may be for the time, he never conceals them, and is cautious that other people should not mistake them.

All his intellectual endowments he professes to owe to his mother's uncle, chaplain to the factory at Lisbon, a man of a most excellent character, of whom Mr. Southey always speaks with that sense of gratitude which argues a good heart. It was with this gentleman that Mr. Southey travelled into Spain and Portugal.

He is now member of Gray's Inn, though he principally resides in the country; and is at present engaged in writing an epic poem, entitled Madoc, which he intends to keep under correction for several years.

It is in the closet where we should contemplate such a character as Robert Southey. We must not look for great variety of incidents in the history of a young man, now only twenty-five years of age, immersed in reading, and impassionately attached to poetry. We will then close with a short account of his writings.

In the year 1795, he published his first volume of poems, in connection with his friend Robert Lovel, the former assuming the name of Moschus, the latter of Bion. Without noticing any particular blemishes that maturer judgment would have corrected, some of which, in subsequent volumes, are now corrected, it may be proper, in general, to say that the sonnets to Ariste are pretty; and the Retrospect and Ode to Romance have considerable merit. On reading the poems of Robert Lovel, the admirers of poetry will lament his early death; for, unquestionably, he had a poetical mind. His sonnets to Happiness and Fame, are particularly excellent.

In the year 1796, Mr. Southey published his Joan of Arc, an epic poem, in ten books. It would be improper to inquire into its particular beauties and defects here. If examined by the rules laid down by Aristotle for the epic, it will be found defective. But, it might be asked, are Aristotle's the invariable rules for the epic? Are they to be the eternal law? And has no other poet ventured to go against them. These are questions not to be urged here. Without pretending to fix the character of Joan of Arc by the ordinary rules of the epic; without inquiring into the truth of the theology, the justice of the representations, and the like, we consider the Joan of Arc to possess great beauties, that cannot fail to please all the lovers of poetry; and, provided they do not forget they are reading the writings of a mere poet (for, the poet always claimed the power of raising spirits, conjuring up visions, or making gods and goddesses, and even devils, at his pleasure), they may justly be delighted with the simplicity and richness of the descriptions, the harmony of the numbers, the amiable spirit of benevolence, and the love of liberty, so prominent in Joan of Arc.

This poem (surprising as it may be thought) was written, Mr. Southey tells us in his preface, in six weeks. Whatever, therefore, its faults may be (though haste, simply considered, is never allowed by strict criticism, to bean apology for negligence), yet, when it is recollected, that it was the almost extemporaneous production of a young man writing for bread, great allowances will be made; though, indeed, before it was brought into its present shape, it underwent mare than ordinary correction, and was twice written over again. The verse is heroic or iambic verse, of ten syllables without rhyme, called by us blank verse, and is, generally speaking, excellent of its kind. The second edition makes two elegant volumes.

The next volume of poems published by Southey, contains the productions of very distant periods. They possess different degrees of merit; for, where a person writes with that uncommon rapidity with which Mr. Southey composes, he will not always write like himself. The Triumph of Woman is a fine poem. The Sonnets on the Slave-Trade breathe much benevolence, and do the author great honour. The lyric poems, though possessed of a good deal of the fire of poetry, are yet defective by many of those qualities required of that most polished and useful, though difficult, species of poetry, by which Mr. Southey has thought proper to denominate them, Lyric. Some of them should rather have been called copies of verses, a name commonly given to little pieces written on the spur of the moment, and reducible to no distinct class. — MARY is a very affecting narrative, and justly admired.

In the year 1799 he published another volume of poems with this motto:

The better please, the worse displease, I ask no more.
SPENSER.

These are, for the most part, of the story or ballad kind, and imitative of the style of the old English ballads. Of this number, are the Complaints of the Poor, the Cross-Roads, the Sailor who had served in the Slave-trade, &c. This volume also contains the Visions of the Maid of Orleans, in three books, which composed the ninth book of the first edition of Joan of Arc, and formed what Mr. Southey called the original sin of the poem. Considered as mere poetry these three books possess many beauties.

Another volume of poems has just made its appearance, entitled The Annual Anthology, of which Mr. Southey wrote a great part. It is a miscellaneous composition, though entirely poetical, and written by different authors. The other contributors are, Mr. Taylor, of Norwich, Mr. Charles Lloyd, Mrs. Opie, Mr. George Dyer, Mr. Joseph Cottle, Mr. Charles Lamb, the late Mr. Robert Lovel, Mr. A. S. Cottle, Mr. Humphrey Davy, and Dr. Beddoes.

This volume is entirely original, with the exception of some pieces that made their appearance in the Morning Post; and, being composed by persons of different tastes, must, of course, possess considerable variety. Every reader, therefore, who has a relish for poetry, may expect to find something suited to his taste in the Annual Anthology; for it unquestionably contains many excellent compositions.

It remains just to say a word of the only prose work written by Mr. Southey, which comprehends his travels, entitled, Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal. This work has been well received, and a second edition has been published not long since.

The most curious part of this work, relates to the Spanish and Portuguese poetry. In all countries, as Mr. Southey properly observes, "the aera of genius has preceeded that of taste; and taste has not yet been reached by the Spanish and Portuguese poets." Genius they have undoubtedly possessed, as may be seen in the La Hermosura de Angelica, an heroic poem, by Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, of which Mr. Southey has given a fair and large specimen; and the Lusiad, of which we have an English translation, by Mr. Mickle. The Diana of George of Mountemayer, from the beautiful specimen given by Mr. Southey, proves the author to have been a man of an elegant fancy. But the characters of the Spaniards and Portuguese are strongly marked by extravagance and superstition) and so is their poetry. Yet, all things considered, more particularly the terrors of their government, and the gloominess of their religion, we are rather surprised that the Spaniards and Portuguese should have done so much, even in poetry, than that they have not done more. And their poetical compositions, amidst much futility and extravagance, contain many things that the curious will like to peruse, and which the ingenious cannot fail to admire. The second edition of Mr. Southey's Letters is unaccompanied with his translations of Spanish and Portuguese poetry. These, we are happy to hear, are to form a distinct volume; and, when enlarged and adorned by Mr. Southey's remarks, cannot fail of being favourably received by the public.