1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:347-50.



One of the most voluminous and learned authors of this period was ROBERT SOUTHEY, LL.D., the Poet-laureate. A poet, scholar, antiquary, critic, and historian, Mr. Southey wrote more than even Scott, and he is said to have burned more verses between his twentieth and thirtieth year than published during his whole life. His time was entirely devoted to literature. Every day and hour had its appropriate and select task; his library was his world within which he was content to range, and his books were his most cherished and constant companions. In one of his poems, he says—

My days among the dead are passed;
Around me I behold,
Where'er these casual eyes are cast
The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they
With whom I converse night and day.

It is melancholy to reflect, that for nearly three years preceding his death, Mr. Southey sat among his books in hopeless vacuity of mind, the victim of disease. This distinguished author was a native of Bristol, the son of a respectable shopkeeper, and was born on the 12th of August 1774. He was indebted to a maternal uncle for most of his education. Having passed with credit through Westminster school, he was, in 1792, entered of Baliol College, Oxford. His friends designed him for the church; but the poet became a Jacobin and Socinian, and his academic career was abruptly closed in 1794.

The same year he published a volume of poems in conjunction with Mr. Robert Lovell, under the names of Moschus and Bion. About the same time he composed his poem of Wat Tyler, a revolutionary brochure, which was long afterwards published surreptitiously by a knavish bookseller to annoy its author. "In my youth," he says, "when my stock of knowledge consisted of such an acquaintance with Greek and Roman history as is acquired in the course of a scholastic education; when my heart was full of poetry and romance, and Lucan and Akenside were at my tongue's end, I fell into the political opinions which the French revolution was then scattering throughout Europe; and following those opinions with ardour wherever they led, I soon perceived that inequalities of rack were a light evil compared to the inequalities of property, and those more fearful distinctions which the want of moral and intellectual culture occasions between man and man. At that time, and with those opinions, or rather feelings (for their root was in the heart, and not in the understanding), I wrote Wat Tyler, as one who was impatient of all the oppressions that are done under the sun. The subject was injudiciously chosen, and it was treated, as might be expected, by a youth of twenty in such times, who regarded only one side of the question." The poem, indeed, is a miserable production, and was harmless from its very inanity. Full of the same political sentiments and ardour, Southey composed his Joan of Arc, an epic poem, displaying fertility of language and boldness of imagination but at the same time diffuse in style, and in many parts wild and incoherent. In imitation of Dante, the young poet conducted his heroine in a dream to the abodes of departed spirits, and dealt very freely with the "murderers of mankind," from Nimrod the mighty hunter, down to the hero conqueror of Agincourt—


A huge and massy pile—
Massy it seemed, and yet in every blast
As to its ruin shook. There, porter fit,
Remorse for ever his sad vigils kept.
Pale, hollow-eyed, emaciate, sleepless wretch,
Inly he groaned, or, starting, wildly shrieked,
Aye as the fabric, tottering from its base,
Threatened its fall — and so, expectant still,
Lived in the dread of danger still delayed.

They entered there a large and lofty dome,
O'er whose black marble sides a dim drear light
Struggled with darkness from the unfrequent lamp.
Enthroned around, the Murderers of Mankind—
Monarchs, the great! the glorious! the august!
Each bearing on his brow a crown of fire—
Sat stern and silent. Nimrod, he was there,
First king, the mighty hunter; and that chief
Who did belie his mother's fame, that so
He might be called young Ammon. In this court
Caesar was crowned — accursed liberticide;
And he who murdered Tully, that cold villain
Octavius — though the courtly minion's lyre
Hath hymned his praise, though Maro sung to him,
And when death levelled to original clay
The royal carcass, Flattery, fawning low,
Fell at his feet, and worshipped the new god.
Titus was here, the conqueror of the Jews,
He, the delight of human-kind misnamed;
Caesars and Soldans, emperors and kings,
Here were they all, all who for glory fought,
Here in the Court of Glory, reaping new
The meed they merited.
As gazing round,
The Virgin marked the miserable train,
A deep and hollow voice from one went forth:
"Thou who art come to view our punishment,
Maiden of Orleans! hither turn thine eyes;
For I am he whose bloody victories
Thy power hath rendered vain. Lo! I am here,
The hero conqueror of Azincour, Henry of England!"

In the second edition of the poem, published in 1798, the vision of the Maid of Orleans, and everything miraculous, was omitted. When the poem first appeared, its author was on his way to Lisbon, in company with his uncle, Dr Herbert, chaplain to the factory at Lisbon. Previous to his departure in November 1795, Mr. Southey had married Miss Fricker of Bristol, sister of the lady with whom Coleridge united himself; and, according to De Quincy, the poet parted with his wife immediately after their marriage at the portico of the church, to set out on his travels. In 1796 he returned to England, and entered himself of Gray's Inn. He afterwards made a visit to Spain and Portugal, and published a series of letters descriptive of his travels. In 1801 he accompanied Mr. Foster, chancellor of the Exchequer, to Ireland in the capacity of private secretary to that gentleman; and the same year witnessed the publication of a second epic, Thalaba the Destroyer, an Arabian fiction of great beauty and magnificence. The style of verse adopted by the poet in this work is irregular, without rhyme; and it possesses a peculiar charm and rhythmical harmony, though, like the redundant descriptions in the work, it becomes wearisome in so long a poem. The opening stanzas convey an exquisite picture of a widowed mother wandering over the sands of the east during the silence of night:—

I.
How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air—
No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, no; stain
Breaks the serene of heaven:
In full-orbed glory, yonder moon divine
Rolls through the dark-blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert-circle spreads,
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is night!

II.
Who, at this untimely hour,
Wanders o'er the desert sands?
No station is in view,
Nor palm-grove islanded amid the waste.
The mother and her child,
The widowed mother and the fatherless boy,
They, at this untimely hour,
Wander o'er the desert sands.

III.
Alas! the setting sun
Saw Zeinab in her bliss,
Hodeirah's wife beloved,
The fruitful mother late,
Whom, when the daughters of Arabia named,
They wished their lot like hers:
She wanders o'er the desert sands
A wretched widow now,
The fruitful mother of so fair a race;
With only one preserved,
She wanders o'er the wilderness.

IV.
No tear relieved the burden of her heart;
Stunned with the heavy wo, she felt like one
Half-wakened from a midnight dream of blood.
But sometimes, when the boy
Would wet her hand with tears,
And, looking up to her fixed countenance,
Sob out the name of Mother, then did she
Utter a feeble groan.
At length, collecting, Zeinab turned her eyes
To heaven, exclaiming, "Praised be the Lord!
He gave, He takes away!
The Lord our God is good!"

The metre of Thalaba, as may he seen from this specimen, has great power, as well as harmony, in skilful hands. It is in accordance with the subject of the poem, and is, as the author himself remarks, "the Arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale." Southey had now cast off his revolutionary opinions, and his future writings were all marked by a somewhat intolerant attachment to church and state. He established himself on the banks of the river Greta, near Keswick, subsisting by his pen, and a pension which he had received from government. In 1804 he published a volume of Metrical Tales, and in 1805 Madoc, an epic poem, founded on a Welsh story, but inferior to its predecessors. In 1810 appeared his greatest poetical work, The Curse of Kehama, a poem of the same class and structure as Thalaba, but in rhyme. With characteristic egotism, Mr. Southey prefixed to The Curse of Kehama a declaration, that he would not change a syllable or measure for any one—

Pedants shall not tie my strains
To our antique poets' veins.

Kehama is a Hindoo rajah, who, like Dr Faustus, obtains and sports with supernatural power. His adventures are sufficiently startling, and afford room for the author's striking amplitude of description. "The story is founded," says Sir Walter Scott, "Upon the Hindoo mythology, the most gigantic, cumbrous, and extravagant system of idolatry to which temples were ever erected. The scene is alternately laid in the terrestrial paradise, under the sea — in the heaven of heavens — and in hell itself. The principal actors are, a man who approaches almost to omnipotence; another labouring under a strange and fearful malediction, which exempts him from the ordinary laws of nature; a good genius, a sorceress, and a ghost, with several Hindostan deities of different ranks. The only being that retains the usual attribute, of humanity is a female, who is gifted with immortality at the close of the piece." Some of the scenes in this strangely magnificent theatre of horrors are described with the power of Milton, and Scott has said that the following account of the approach of the mortals to Padalon, or the Indian Hades, is equal in grandeur to any passage which he ever perused:—

Far ether light than that of day there shone
Upon the travellers, entering Padalon.
They, too, in darkness entering on their way,
But far before the car
A glow, as of a fiery furnace light,
Filled all before them. 'Twas a light that made
Darkness itself appear
A thing of comfort; and the sight, dismayed,
Shrank inward from the molten atmosphere.
Their way was through the adamantine rock
Which girt the world of wo: on either side
Its massive walls arose, and overhead
Arched the long passage; onward as they ride,
With stronger glare the light around them spread—
And, lo! the regions dread—
The world of we before them opening wide,
There rolls the fiery flood,
Girding the realms of Padalon around.
A sea of flame, it seemed to be
Sea without bound;
For neither mortal nor immortal sight
Could pierce across through that intensest light.

Besides its wonderful display of imagination and invention, and its vivid scene-painting, the Curse of Kehama possesses the recommendation of being in manners, sentiments, scenery, and costume, distinctively and exclusively Hindoo. Its author was too diligent a strident to omit whatever was characteristic in the landscape or the people. Passing over his prose works, we next find Mr. Southey appear in a native poetical dress in blank verse. In 1814 he published Roderick, the Last of the Goths, a noble and pathetic poem, though liable also to the charge of redundant description. The style of the versification may be seen from the following account of the grief and confusion of the aged monarch, when he finds his throne occupied by the Moors after his long absence:—

The sound, the sight
Of turban, girdle, robe, and scimitar,
And tawny skins, awoke contending thoughts
Of anger, shame, and anguish in the Goth;
The unaccustomed face of human kind
Confused him now — and through the streets he went
With haggard mien, and countenance like one
Crazed or bewildered. All who met him turned,
And wondered as he passed. One stopped him short,
Put alms limits his hand, and then desired,
In broken Gothic speech, the moonstruck man
To bless him. With a look of vacancy,
Roderick received the alms; his wandering eye
Fell on the money, and the fallen king,
Seeming his royal impress on the piece,
Broke out into a quick convulsive voice,
That seemed like laughter first, but ended soon
In hollow groan suppressed: the Mussulman
Shrunk at the ghastly sound, and magnified
The name of Allah as he hastened on.
A Christian woman, spinning at her door,
Beheld him — and with sudden pity touched,
She laid her spindle by, and running in,
Took bread, and following after, called him back—
And, placing in his passive hands the loaf,
She said, Christ Jesus for his Mother's sake
Have mercy on thee! With a look that seemed
Like idiocy, he heard her, and stood still,
Staring awhile; then bursting into tears,
Wept like a child.

Or the following description of a moonlight scene:—

How calmly, gliding through the dark blue sky,
The midnight moon ascends! Her placid beams,
Through thinly-scattered leaves, and boughs grotesque,
Mottle with mazy shades the orchard slope;
Here o'er the chestnut's fretted foliage, gray
And massy, motionless they spread; here shine
Upon the crags, deepening with blacker night
Their chasms; and there the glittering argentry
Ripples and glances on the confluent streams.
A lovelier, purer light than that of day
Rests on the hills; and ah! how awfully,
Into that deep and tranquil firmament,
The summits of Auseva rise serene!
The watchman on the battlements partakes
The stillness of the solemn hour; he feels
The silence of the earth; the endless sound
Of flowing water soothes him; and the stars,
Which in that brightest moonlight well nigh quenched,
Scarce visible, as in the utmost depth
Of yonder sapphire infinite, are seen,
Draw on with elevating influence
Towards eternity the attempered mind.
Musing on worlds beyond the grave, he stands,
And to the Virgin Mother silently
Breathes forth her hymn of praise.

Mr. Southey, having, in 1813, accepted the office of poet-laureate, composed some courtly strains that tended little to advance his reputation. His Carmen Triumphale, and The Vision of Judgment, provoked much ridicule at the time, and would have passed into utter oblivion, if Lord Byron had not published another Vision of Judgment — one of this most powerful, though wild and profane of his productions, in which the laureate received a merciless and witty castigation, that even his admirers admitted to be not unmerited. The latest of our author's poetical works was a volume of narrative verse, All for Love, and The Pilgrim of Compostella. He continued his ceaseless round of study and composition, writing on all subjects, and filling ream after ream of paper with his lucubrations on morals, philosophy, poetry, and politics. He was offered a baronetcy and a seat in parliament, both of which he prudently declined. His fame and his fortune, he knew, could only be preserved by adhering to his solitary studies; but these were too constant and uninterrupted. The poet forgot one of his own maxims, that "frequent change of air is of all things that which most conduces to joyous health and long life." Paralysis at length laid prostrate his powers. He sank into a state of insensibility, not even recognising those who ministered to his wants; and it was a matter of satisfaction rather than regret, that death at length stept in to shroud this painful spectacle from the eyes of affection as well as from the gaze of vulgar curiosity. He died in his house at Greta on the 21st of March 1843. Mr. Southey had, a few years before his death, lost the early partner of his affections, and contracted a second marriage with Miss Caroline Bowles, the poetess. He left, at his death, a sum of about £12,000 to be divided among his children, and one of the most valuable private libraries in the kingdom. So much had literature, unaided but by prudence and worth, accomplished for its devoted follower! The following inscription for a tablet to the memory of Mr. Southey, to be placed in the church of Crosthwaite, near Keswick, is from the pen of the venerable Wordsworth:—

"Sacred to the memory of Robert Southey, whose mortal remains are interred in the neighbouring churchyard. He was born at Bristol, October 4, 1774, and died, after a residence of nearly 40 years, at Greta Hall, in this parish, March 21, 1843.

Ye torrents foaming down the rocky steeps,
Ye lakes wherein the Spirit of Water sleeps,
Ye vales and hills, whose beauty hither drew
The poet's steps, and fixed him here, on you
His eyes have closed; and ye, loved books, no more
Shall Southey feed upon your precious lore,
To works that ne'er shall forfeit their renown,
Adding immortal labours of his own;
Whether he traced historic truth with zeal
For the state's guidance, or the church's weal;
Or Fancy, disciplined by studious Art,
Informed his pen, or Wisdom of the heart,
Or Judgments sanctioned in the patriot's mind
By reverence for the rights of all mankind.
Large were his aims, yet in no human breast
Could private feelings find a holier nest.
His joys, his griefs, have vanished like a cloud
From Skiddaw's top; but he to Heaven was vowed
Through a long life, and calmed by Christian faith
In his pure soul the fear of change and death."

Few authors have written so much and so well with so little real popularity, as Mr. Southey. Of all his prose works, admirable as they are in purity of style, the Life of Nelson alone is a general favourite. The magnificent creations of his poetry — piled up like clouds at sunset, in the calm serenity of his capacious intellect — have always been duly appreciated by poetical students and critical readers; but by the public at large they are neglected. A late attempt to revive them, by the publication of the whole poetical works in ten uniform and cheap volumes, has only shown that they are unsuited to the taste of the present generation. The reason of this may be found both in the subjects of Southey's poetry, and in his manner of treating them. His fictions are wild and supernatural, and have no hold on human affections. Gorgeous and sublime as some of his images and descriptions are, they "come like shadows, so depart." They are too remote, too fanciful, and often too learned. The Grecian mythology is graceful and familiar; but Mr. Southey's Hindoo superstitions are extravagant and strange. To relish them requires considerable previous reading and research, and this is a task which few will undertake. The dramatic art or power of vivid delineation is also comparatively unknown to Southey, and hence the dialogues in Madoc and Roderick are generally flat and uninteresting. His observation was of books, not nature. Some affectations of style and expression also marred the effect of his conceptions, and the stately and copious flow of his versification, unrelieved by bursts of passion or eloquent sentiment, sometimes becomes heavy and monotonous in its uniform smoothness and dignity.