1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Anonymous, "Robert Southey, Esq. Poet Laureate" Literary Gazette (24 May 1817) 281-84.



The families from which Mr. Robert Southey is descended, both on his father's and on his mother's side, are of great respectability, in the county of Somerset, and at the time the subject of the present memoir was born, on the 12th of August, 1774, the father was engaged in an extensive business in the city of Bristol. To obtain the first rudiments of knowledge, young Southey was placed under the care of a Mr. Foote, who kept a small school in Bristol, but before he had reached his seventh year he was removed to a seminary at Carston. — After continuing there about two years, he returned to his native place, where he was put under the care of a clergyman. At a very early age his friends discovered in him talents and qualities that deserved to be placed in a higher sphere than that in which his father had moved; they therefore designed him for the church. With a view to give him every advantage, Robert Southey, in the year 1787, was sent to Westminster school. His maternal aunt, Miss Tyler, was extremely fond of her promising nephew, took great pains with his education, and by encouraging him in reading some of our best writers of the old school, converted his youthful and transitory passion for the muses into a fixed and enthusiastic attachment. — We have been shown, by one of his school-fellows, two copies of verses said to have been written by Southey when he was about fourteen years old. Deep thought, which is the offspring of experience, cannot, of course, be expected in them, but they may be justly admired for the very easy and musical flow of the numbers. Most probably the great attention he paid to English poetry, was the true reason why his Latin verses gained him little credit, while he remained at Westminster school. His amiable and inoffensive manners attracted the love of his companions, though from his retired disposition and his love of study, or more properly of reading, he seldom joined in the noisy mirth of school-boy exultation.

At the age of a little more than eighteen, in Nov. 1792, Mr. Southey was entered a commoner of Baliol College, Oxford. His father as at this time in no condition, from losses in trade, to defray his expenses, which were paid, we believe, in a great measure, by his maternal uncle the Rev. Mr. Hill, (formerly many years chaplain of the British factory at Lisbon, and now of Streatham, Surrey,) and by his aunt, Miss Tyler, a lady of considerable fortune. About three months after the college rolls had received the name of Robert Southey, the King of France was beheaded, the Revolution being at that time at its height. Whoever recollects that the most specious pretences of public benefits were then held out by those who were only anxious to secure their own private interests, that the whole empire was divided into two great parties, the young and enthusiastic, who confidently looked forward to the happiest results, being ranged on the one side, and the experienced and timid, who dreaded that "a death-blow would be given to all rational liberty," (to use Mr. Burke's words,) being united on the other, will not wonder at finding the name of Southey in the ranks of the former. Constitutional energy of feeling and warmth of imagination, naturally attached a young mail of eighteen to a cause which, even to graver heads, seemed to promise so much: nor can we severely blame a choice which, however erroneous, was governed, not by any factions or ambitious spirit, but by the purest love of genuine liberty; the fault was judging too benevolently of the views of the chief instigators of the Revolution: their admirers "drew men as they ought to be, not as they are." The result has undeceived Mr. Southey, and half Europe with him: to have changed an opinion with all experience in favour of the alteration, cannot surely be imputed as a crime: the offence is, and no slight one, to continue to maintain, with something worse than senseless obstinacy, the truth and justice of the exploded opinions which those who now uphold them were formerly deeply interested to support.

At Oxford, during the year 1793, Mr. Southey became acquainted with two fellow commoners, Mr. S. T. Coleridge and Mr. Lovell: they formed a triumvirate of enthusiasts in politics and poetry, and the similarity of literary pursuits and of political sentiments, soon united them in bonds of the most strict and confidential friendship. The system of fraternisation, which in France had been carried to so ridiculous an extent, was transplanted into England. The three fellow students vowed an eternal brotherly affection, and heated with the prevailing democratical opinions upon the revolution in France, listening only to the favourable representations, and remembering that but ten years previous what was termed by some the "ever glorious work of independence" had been effected in America, they left college with a determination to forsake their native country, (where they then idly thought an indestructible system of slavery was established,) to settle on the fertile banks of the Susquehanna.

It was an age of madness, and many others entertained the same wild project with which the youthful poets were enchanted. If persons of cold and calculating minds, uninfluenced by any thing but a supposed estimate of augmented interest, entered into such a vain scheme, it is not wonderful that three boys, (for they were little more,) gifted with imaginations soaring towards "the highest heaven of invention," should promise delights of more than human transport, that none but themselves could foresee, and depict scenes dressed in more than the gay luxuriance of nature that only fancy's eye could behold.

When the three friends quitted college they repaired to Bristol, for the purpose of carrying their design into execution. We understand that Mr. Southey's father was at this time dead. A Mr. Allen, Mr. Burnett, (the author of the History of Poland,) and several others, were to accompany them in this expedition. They were to form an independent colony on the banks of the Susquehanna, and consistently with the reigning views at that time, they were to have every timing in common, and, as the title which they gave their society implies, all were to have the same share in the administration of the public affairs of their new government. It was termed a "Pantisocracy."

Mr. Southey and his relations had for some time been acquainted with a family of the name of Fricker, in which there were four daughters, three of whom were at that time of a marriageable age. To one of these young ladies Mr. Southey had, we believe, previously formed an attachment, and as it was necessary, in order to render the colony more extensive and flourishing, and as young poets lose half their inspiration in the absence of females, it was, after some previous negociations, agreed that Mr. Coleridge and Mr. Lovell should marry the other two sisters, and that Mrs. Fricker and her youngest daughter should accompany the expedition. Of course the whole scheme, but particularly the marriage of her nephew into a family whose wealth was by no means a recommendation, met with the strong disapprobation of Miss Tyler, who used her utmost exertions to prevent its execution. We know not exactly to what cause the defeat of this visionary plan is to be attributed; whether to the representations of Miss Tyler, the entreaties of Mr. Southey's mother, or the unwillingness of Mrs. Fricker, whether to the changes in the political world, or whether to the arrival of the Rev. Mr. Hill, (Mr. Southey's maternal uncle, whose name we have before mentioned) from Portugal, at that juncture. Mr. Hill was in possession of a living at Hereford, which obliged him to return to England annually, and one of these visits occurred just at the time the young adventurers were contemplating their speedy embarkation for their trans-Atlantic expedition.

On his return to Lisbon in 1795, (the colonizing scheme having been unwillingly relinquished by all the parties, but particularly by Mr. Southey) Mr. Hill proposed to take his nephew with him, and with great persuasion, the young man's consent was at last obtained.

The marriage of Mr. Southey and Miss Fricker, which had been contracted under the notion of a settlement in North America, had not at this time (1795) been solemnized, but on Mr. Hill undertaking to conduct his nephew to Portugal, it was concluded that the nuptials should not be celebrated until after his return. The attachment of Mr. Southey, however, was too strong to allow him to rest his happiness upon the unsure footing of a distant union, that a thousand accidents (of nine hundred and ninety-nine of which lovers alone are sensible,) might postpone or prevent. He therefore determined, contrary to the advice of his friends, we believe, immediately to marry the lady he had chosen, and on the very day of the solemnization he left Bristol to accompany his uncle to Spain. To no part of his family was this connection more displeasing than to Miss Tyler, whose objections were continued for a considerable time after the event.

When Mr. Southey left England, the period fixed for his return was the end of six months, and almost to a day he kept the appointment he had made. Mrs. Southey, in the mean time, boarded at the house of a friend in Bristol. After his arrival in his native country, Mr. Southey for some years remained in his native city and its vicinity in the enjoyment of the tranquil pleasures of a domestic circle, enlivened by the company of the choicest friends that society affords. He pursued his literary labours, or rather his literary pleasures, with great zeal and industry, and laid the foundation of several of the works he has since published. We did not interrupt our notice to observe, that in 1795 he produced a volume of poems in conjunction with Robert Lovell, under the classic names of Moschus and Bion; titles perhaps not well chosen, when we consider the nature of most of the pieces, although it must be admitted that of all the writers among—

The learned Greeks, rich in fit epithets,
Blest in the lovely marriage of pure words,

there are none that seem to approach so nearly to the modern style of thought and expression. Southey at this time had not attained his twentieth year, and Lovell was younger. The year following that of his marriage, 1796, appeared his Joan of Arc, which is stated to have been written in the short space of six weeks.

The gratification and improvement experienced by Mr. Southey in his first visit to the Peninsula, induced him after remaining in England about six years, to project a return thither in company with his wife, which he accomplished in the beginning of the year 1800, and for sixteen months he was employed in travelling through various parts of Spain and Portugal. The observations he made upon the manners of the people, upon the government of the country, and the results of his tasteful and laborious literary investigations were given to the public on his return to his native land, in the letters which he wrote to England during his absence. They are too well known to need any comment; that work and Lord Holland's life of Lope de Vega contain a great mass of information respecting the literature of the Peninsula, until then little attended to in this country. In Germany the critics had formed a much higher estimate of its value. He also about this time published, in conjunction with Mr. C. Lamb, Sir H. Davy, and others, two volumes of poems called the Annual Anthology.

Towards the close of the year 1801, Mr. Southey obtained the appointment of Secretary to Mr. Corry, at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland, and continued to hold the place until his principal quitted the office, when we believe that Mr. Southey's talents and services received a reward which they eminently merited. Before, however, he entered upon the duties of this office, he laid before the public his poem of Thalaba, the Destroyer, which excited a strong sensation in the literary community. Much learned dust was raised in disputes respecting the pre-eminence of its merits or defects, but the decision of the public was unquestionably in its favour. In 1801 also appeared a volume of miscellaneous pieces, none of which can be read without some degree of praise: it was followed by a second volume of the same kind a few years afterwards.

In the autumn of 1802, or the spring of 18O3, Mr. Southey retired to the romantic vicinity of Keswick, in Cumberland, where he has, with the interruption only of short visits to London, resided ever since, surrounded by his family. The house in which he lives is divided in the centre: one half is occupied by Mr. Southey, his wife, and children, and the other half by Mrs. Coleridge (sister to Mrs. Southey) and her two sons. Mrs. Lovell, who it will be remembered is also a sister of Mrs. Southey, but whose husband died a short time after they were married, lives under the roof of her brother-in-law, and educates his daughters, of whom there are four; the eldest has, we understand, just completed the twelfth year. Mr. Southey has also one son of about the age of eight years, whom he takes great pleasure in educating himself. Mr. Southey is a man of a most happy and domestic temper, delighting in the society of his children even in his most laborious hours; and from habit he has obtained such a power of abstraction as to be able to pursue his studies in their company without interruption, excepting when his paternal tenderness is called forth by the plaintive cries of his infant offspring.

In the month of September 1813, Mr. Southey accepted the office of poet-laureate on the death of the late occupant, Mr. Pye. As to the question of political consistency, surely the moment when all hearts are animated by but one sentiment of exultation at the recent glorious events, which have destroyed what all admit to have been an odious tyranny, is not a time to revive political animosities; and surely when we have just witnessed the bloody progress and happy denouement of the French revolutionary tragedy, it is not a time to censure those who have repented of the errors of youthful ardour. To such as maintain that the laureate is a person who must necessarily model his views by those of the court, we ask whether there have not been exceptions to this rule, and whether the mode of Mr. Southey's appointment does not enable him, if it be requisite, to add to the number of those exceptions? He is required to produce no slavish birth-day odes; none have been published; but, above all, supposing we admitted all that is alleged on this subject, we would ask if this be not a period when the applauses that might be bestowed by the laureate upon the recent efforts of government, would not be echoed by the whole population of liberated Europe?

As for his poem of Wat Tyler, written at the age of nineteen, we do not wish to defend all its principles, neither, we presume, would Mr. Southey himself. We shall, however, observe, that the fact of its having never been published by the author, is sufficient to shew, that he himself disapproved of it, and that its subsequent publication by others, was a malicious attempt to bring him into disgrace and odium. In private life, if a man correct his bad habits, every one joins in his commendation. But how different is the system of political morality! Here, to reform is to apostatize; to acknowledge past error, is to augment it by the crime of desertion; to adhere to a measure which one's friends have forsaken, is called forsaking one's friends, and to adhere to those friends in their abandonment of it, is called abandoning one's principles. For our own parts, such is our opinion of Mr. Southey's motives for having recanted his early opinions, and of the motives of those who have raised an outcry against him, that we would much rather be the objects of such obloquy than the authors of it.

We understand that Mr. Southey has several works in progress. One of them is a poem strictly epic, the hero of which, singular as it may seem — is a member of the Society of Friends. This is not the only work of that nature finished; and as Mr. Southey is understood to make it a rule to write 40 lines every morning before breakfast, his progress in any undertaking is very rapid.