1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:433-35.



ROBERT SOUTHEY, the son of a linen-draper, of Bristol, was born there on the 12th of August, 1774. He received the rudiments of education at a day school in his native city, and was afterwards placed under the care of a private tutor, previously to his being sent to Westminster, which he entered at the age of fourteen. By a strict attention to his father's maxim, "to tie the stocking up tight, and be punctual," he passed through the school with sufficient steadiness to avoid corporal punishment, though his sympathy for others induced him to write some essays in a periodical paper, called The Flagellant.

In November, 1792, he was entered a student of Baliol College, Oxford, with the intention of studying for the church; but imbibing Unitarian principles, and, fired with the then recent events of the French revolution, he became a red-hot republican; and, forming an acquaintance with Coleridge, entered into the pantisocratic scheme, mentioned in our memoir of that poet.

In 1793, he married a Miss Fricker, and in the same year, published, in conjunction with his friend Lovel, The Retrospect, and other poems, under the signatures of Moschus and Bion. After taking his bachelor's degree, he left Oxford, and became a member of Gray's Inn; and, about the same period, he gave to the world his Wat Tyler, in which he advocated republican principles, with an enthusiasm and vehemence, which he afterwards, either from interest or principle, much regretted. He also sought to suppress the work itself, and made an application for an injunction against Carlile and others, who had printed it, but the chancellor refused to interfere, on the ground of its objectionable principles. After making a six months' tour in Spain and Portugal, he published an epic poem, in ten books, entitled Joan of Arc, a second edition of which appeared in 1797, together with a volume of minor poems.

In 1798, he printed Letters from Spain and Portugal, with translations from the poems of both countries; and shortly afterwards he contributed, with Mrs. Opie and others, to The Annual Anthology for 1799 and 1800. In 1801, he obtained the appointment of secretary to Mr. Corry, chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland; and after the union, he was fortunate enough to obtain the grant of a pension of 200 a-year.

On his retirement from office, he took up his residence at Keswick, where, devoting himself to literary employments, he produced, successively, Amadis de Gaul, from the Spanish; an edition of the works of Chatterton; Thalaba, the Destroyer; Metrical Tales, and other poems; Madoc; Palmerin of England, from the Portuguese; Letters from England, written under the fictitious name of Espriella; and the Remains of Henry Kirke White, with his life, in two volumes; to which he has since added a third. In 1808, he printed the Chronicle of the Cid, from the Spanish; in 1810, appeared the first volume of his History of Brazil, which he has since completed by a second; and, in 1812, he published an amusing miscellany, entitled Omniana. These were succeeded by his Curse of Kehama, Life of Nelson, and his poem of Roderick, the last of the Goths.

In 1815, two years before which he had succeeded Mr. Pye, as poet laureate, he published the Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo; and, in 1821, came out his Vision of Judgment, which gave rise to Lord Byron's poem of the same name, in The Liberal, and to a severe castigation of the laureate in a preface thereto. His next publications were a History of the Peninsular War, in three volumes, quarto; and his famous Book of the Church, which was replied to by Mr. Charles Butler, on behalf of the Roman catholics, whom our author answered in a supplement to his former work, entitled Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae. In 1829, he published his Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society; and, in the same year, he added to his poetical works his All for Love, and The Pilgrim to Compostella, neither of which added to his reputation. In addition to the works before-mentioned, Mr. Southey has written The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of King Arthur; A Tale of Paraguay; The Life of Wesley; besides several pieces, prose and poetical, in the various periodicals of the day. Sometime ago, the University of Oxford conferred upon him the degree of LL.D., and he was also returned to parliament for a ministerial borough, but declined taking his seat.

The laureate is undoubtedly a man of genius and erudition, but we doubt whether any of his works are destined to reach posterity. As a poet, his reputation has already faded; though his Thalaba, and a few of his miscellaneous poems, deserve to be rescued from oblivion, containing, as they do, beauties of a rare and original character. There is as much chaff in his prose as in his poetry; and, indeed, the chief fault of his writings is the preponderance of quantity over quality. Speaking of him, in 1813, his inveterate enemy, Lord Byron, says, "Southey I have not seen much of. His appearance is epic; and he is the only existing entire man of letters. His manners are mild, but not those of a man of the world; and his talents of the first order. His prose is perfect. Of his poetry there are various opinions: there is, perhaps, too much of it for the present generation; — posterity will, probably, select. He has passages equal to any thing. At present, he has a party, but no public — except for his prose writings. The Life of Nelson is beautiful." This is still a fair estimate of his abilities; for, looking back upon his performances of the last seventeen years, we see nothing in them that has advanced his literary reputation. A reviewer in Blackwood's Magazine calls his History of Brazil "the most unreadable production of our time;" and observes, that his History of the Peninsular War is "little better than another Caucasus of lumber." Upon the whole, however, he ranks high among the writers of the present century; though, if his grade be determined by his popularity, it will be found to be lower than his admirers suspect, or than he himself, perhaps, deserves.

His character has been variously represented: according to Mr. Coleridge, it is all that is estimable, and has, for its only enemies, "quacks in education, quacks in politics, and quacks in criticism." No one, however, we believe, disputes the fact of his being an amiable member of society, and a zealous philanthropist; but whether he has given the most satisfactory evidence of his political integrity and tolerant sentiments, is, at the least, doubtful. We neither approve of, nor coincide with, Lord Byron's vituperation of Mr. Southey; but we cannot forbear suggesting, that one who has held such opposite opinions, sincere as we believe his present ones to be, questions with an ill grace the sincerity of either his political or poetical opponents.