1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 22.



ROBERT SOUTHEY was born in Bristol, on the 12th of August, 1774. Having given early tokens of that genius which has since placed his name foremost among British Worthies, his friends resolved that the advantages of a liberal education should be added to those which Nature had bestowed upon him, and sent him in 1788, to Westminster School. In 1792, he was entered at Baliol College, Oxford. During his residence in the University, he became infected with Jacobinical principles; but if some of his earlier productions contributed to disseminate pernicious doctrines, he has amply compensated mankind by the labours of a long life in the cause of Virtue. In 1796, his first great poem, Joan of Arc, appeared; and his fame was completely established, when, in 1801, the romance of Thalaba issued from the press. He has since been continually before the world; and there is scarcely a branch of literature to which he has not contributed, — a list of his publications would fill this page. In 1813, Southey accepted the office of Poet Laureat, on the death of Pye, — and for nearly the first time, during at least a century, the office, instead of conferring, received dignity.

Southey is tall and handsome, with a clear and noble forehead; an aquiline nose; a profusion of hair; and uncomnonly bright eyes: his voice is musical, full of gentleness and persuasion, and his smile is as winning as it is sweet. His hair, once a curling and glossy black, curls still, but is white as snow; and his step has lost some of its elasticity, — but his eyes are as bright, and his smile as winning, as ever. He is rarely seen in the great world. His distaste of the turmoils of life induced him to decline the offer of a seat in the House of Commons, to which he had been elected; — apart from the bustle and feverish excitement of a city, he pursues his gentle and useful course from year to year:

And to his mountains and his forests rude
Chaunts in sweet melody his classic song.

He has led the life of a scholar with as much steadiness of purpose and devotion, as if he had bound himself to his books by a religious vow. His works are sufficient to form a library; they are proofs of his amazing industry, not less than his vast and comprehensive learning. His wonderful genius may excite our admiration; but the extent of his "profitable labour" is, indeed, prodigious. There is nothing like it we believe in the history of the human mind. His character is as unspotted as that of any public man — living or dead. The world is aware that he has had some enemies: no one ever deserved them less. His friends are numerous, devoted, and firm. No one ever earned them better, or merited them more

We soon live down
Evil or good report, if undeserved.

His political opponents have tendered evidence to the estimable character of both his head and heart. One of the harshest arraigners of what he calls the inconsistency of Dr. Southey — as if that were inconsistency which induces to leave a path after it is known to be the wrong one — states, that "in all the relations and charities of private life, he is correct, exemplary, generous, just." He is one of the leading critics of the age; and, although there is abundant proof of his generous zeal in aiding young talent, there has never attached to him the suspicion of depressing it. The career of Southey is the best answer to the absurd, but too generally received opinion, that a critic is of necessity acrimonious or unjust.

Of late years, the prose of Southey has been preferred to his poetry. It rarely happens that there is a preference without a disparagement. No Poet in the present or the past century, has written three such poems as Thalaba, Kehama, and Roderic. Others have more excelled in DELINEATING what they find before them in life; but none have given such proofs of extraordinary power in CREATING. He has been called diffuse, because there is a spaciousness and amplitude about his poetry — as if concentration was the highest quality of a writer. He lays all his thoughts before us; but they ever rush forth tumultuously. He excels in unity of design and congruity of character; and never did Poet more adequately express heroic fortitude, and generous affections. He has not, however, limited his pen to grand paintings of epic character. Among his shorter productions will be found some light and graceful sketches, full of beauty and feeling, and not the less valuable because they invariably aim at promoting virtue.