1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Robert Southey" The Authors of England (1838) 27-33.



It happens but seldom that the fruits of scholarship and learning are widely spread and graciously accepted among the general public at first hand; inasmuch as it requires no small measure of the poet's fine taste, genial sympathy, and enchantments of style, to select from among the fruit of the student's and antiquarian's researches, what shall interest the many; or to present such matter, when selected, in a form which shall be striking or admirable. And few of the sons of genius have possessed the inclination or attained to the self-discipline of maturing their powers and widening their circle of knowledge, by diligent and arduous study. As an instance of this rare union of poet and scholar Dr. Southey stands pre-eminent among his contemporaries. Few have laboured in the cause of literature more ceaselessly or with greater earnestness: few have laboured so well. He will as surely be remembered in future days as the biographer of the period just past, as Sir Walter Scott will be known for its prime minister of Fiction!

Dr. Southey was born on the 12th of August 1774, in Wine Street, Bristol. That he feels an honest pride in having raised himself by his talents to his present position, some of his writings testify: but with what a manly and affectionate simplicity he looks back to the days of his infancy, and speaks of his origin, may be seen in the following fragment of a letter addressed to Doctor Adam Clarke. "Twelve months ago," says he, "I passed three days at Bristol, where I had not been for twenty years before. I went into my father's shop, and requested leave to go into his house, and into the room where my cradle had been rocked. I went also to Bedminster, where my mother was born, and where, in her mother's house, the happiest days of my childhood had been passed, and requested leave to go in. The house had been re-modelled, and the gardens laid out in the manner of these times. I recognized nothing as it had been, except a few trees which my uncles and my grandfather had planted."

A great part of Dr. Southey's childhood was passed at Bath, under the care of his mother's half-sister. When about six years of age, he was sent to school, being in the first instance placed with Mr. Foote, a Baptist minister; subsequently at a boarding-school at Corston, near Newton, St. Loo, kept by a Mr. Flower; thence, to his great comfort, after a year's residence, brought home again, and handed over to the tuition of Mr. William Williams, a Welchman, from whom little scholarship was to be got; from him transferred to the care of a private tutor; and, lastly, removed by his uncle, Mr. Hill, to Westminster, in the spring of 1788. To this list of the places in which he received his education may be added a brief notice of Dr. Southey's early studies out of school, extracted from a delightful letter recently published in the Autobiography of Sir Egerton Brydges.

"From very early boyhood, when I first read the 'Arcadia' in Mrs. Stanley's modernization of it, Sydney took possession of my imagination. Not that I liked the book the better, just in proportion as she had worsened it, for his own language would have presented nothing strange or difficult to me who had read Shakspeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, as soon as I could understand enough of them to follow the story of their plays. Spenser afterwards increased my veneration for Sydney, and Penshurst, when I first saw it (in 1791), was the holiest ground I had ever visited."

Late in the year 1792, Dr. Southey entered Baliol College, Oxford, where he remained during the following twelvemonth, and part of the year 1794: but his peculiar opinions, which at that time in politics were fiercely Jacobinical, and in religion more than tended towards Socinianism, made his entrance of the Church of England as a minister impossible; and for this he had been designed. His academic career was accordingly closed by him; "the world was now all before him where to choose." In the winter of 1794, he put forth his first poems; a small volume published in conjunction with Mr. Robert Lovell, under the names of Moschus and Bion. Mr. Lovell, it will be remembered, sharing the enthusiastic liberalism of his friend, was one of the band who, being resolved to emancipate themselves from the intolerable and corrupted institutions of a worn out country "nodding to its fall," in the boyish fullness and folly of zeal without judgment, originated the short-lived Pantisocracy scheme. It is hardly necessary to remind the reader that Mr. Coleridge was another of those embarked in the enterprise, so often have the plan in question and the names of those concerned in it been revived from the dust, and brought forward as an engine of party annoyance for the confusion of those whose opinions (following the law of the pendulum) have since become as conservative as they were then democratic. Dr. Southey shall himself speak of the spirit and purpose which actuated him during this period, and which were uttered in his first published poems.

"In my youth," says he, writing to Mr. William Smith, "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 rank 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. * * Were I now to dramatize the same story there would be much to add but little to alter. * * * I should write as a man not as a stripling; with the same heart and the same desires, but with a ripened understanding and competent stores of knowledge." Dr. Southey further thus characterizes his own minor poems of the same date, as expressing "an enthusiastic love of liberty, a detestation of tyranny wherever it exists and in whatever form, an ardent abhorrence of all wicked ambition, and a sympathy, not less ardent, with all those who were engaged in war for the defence of their country, and in a righteous cause; feelings just, as well as generous, in themselves." His antagonists, (in his early days his partizans), he adds, "might have perceived also frequent indications, that in the opinion of the youthful writer a far happier system of society was possible than any under which mankind are at present existing, or have ever existed since the patriarchal ages, and no equivocal aspirations after such a stage." * * * "From building castles in the air," continues Dr. Southey in a subsequent paragraph, "to framing commonwealths, was an easy transition; and in the hope of accomplishing this I forsook the course of life for which I had been designed, and the prospects of advancement which, I may say without presumption, were within my reach. My purpose was to retire with a few friends into the wilds of America, and there lay the foundations of a community upon what we believed to be the political system of Christianity. It matters not in what manner this vision was dissolved." To this passage there need only be added, in taking leave of the subject, that the complete change which Dr. Southey's opinions have undergone, between the publication of "Joan of Arc" and the "Vision of Judgment," has not influenced in the least his manner of expression. The same fervour of temperament which made him contemplate an exchange of the banks of the Isis for those of the Susquehannah, has always guided his pen, whether in answering Lord Byron's bitter verse with bitterer prose, — whether in fighting for Church and State with visor up or visor down. He is, as he was then, too thoroughly in earnest to be deliberate and smooth, or always even courteous in his antagonism. Let this fact be allowed its full weight, as an evidence of sincerity, by those who, themselves one-sided, regard all changes of opinion as being of necessity corrupt, and leading to corruption.

To return from this necessary digression to the few further notices of Dr. Southey's life permitted to us; — in November, 1795, the Pantisocracy scheme having been abandoned for want of funds, the poet married Miss Fricker, the sister of the lady with whom Coleridge united himself. In the winter of the same year, while its author was on his way to Lisbon, through Madrid, was published his "Joan of Arc." In the following summer he returned to Bristol; in the subsequent year he removed to London, and entered Gray's Inn: — paying a second visit to Portugal in the year 1800, for the recovery of his health. In the year 1801 Dr. Southey returned to England; and a biographical notice before us, gives it as the date of his also going to Ireland, as private secretary to Mr. Foster. In the year 1802, however, he was again at Bristol; and upon the death of his first child, being urged to visit Mr. Coleridge, who was then residing in the Lake country, he set up his rest at Keswick, where he has since continued to reside, producing, with little intermission, that varied and extensive series of works, an enumeration of which must be presently attempted, — year by year adding to his friendships among the worthy and the gifted, and collecting a library, "more ample perhaps," to quote his own words, "than was ever before possessed by one whose sole estate was in his inkstand." To the above notices, it may be added, that upon the death of Pye, in the year 1813, Dr. Southey was promoted to the vacant Laureateship, which had been first so honourably declined by Scott, and that in the year 1821 he received his Doctor's degree. We happen to know, too, that a seat in Parliament, and a Baronetcy, have been both, at different times, offered to his acceptance, and both of them declined.

We have now to count up the poems of Dr. Southey, in addition to those already mentioned, and the Annual Anthology, of which he was editor and principal contributor. The first of these is the "Thalaba" (published 1803); then follow a volume of Metrical Tales (in 1804) — "Madoc," (1805) — "The Curse of Kehama," (1810) — "Carmen Triumphale," as the Laureate Odes (1814) — "Roderick, the Last of the Goths" (1814), and subsequently, the "Vision of Judgment," above mentioned — a difficult subject, and made more difficult by its writer having attempted to naturalize a classical measure, the English language lending itself most unwillingly to the process. The list of Dr. Southey's poems is, we believe, completed by the mention of "All for Love," and the "Pilgrim of Compostella," published not many years since; — of his fugitive and minor pieces it would be vain to attempt a list.

Though the opinion has been already ventured, that the name of the Laureate will live principally in connexion with his prose works, the distinct and high excellences of his poems are not to be passed over. Though in few and feeble words, we must point to the simplicity and feeling of his domestic pieces; there is a plain, searching, but not vulgar truth in his eclogues, which places them by the side of Crabbe's most forcible and finished cabinet pictures, — a quaintness, a credulity, and a humour in his ballads, especially in those of witchcraft and monkery, which belong to one steeped in the spirit of ancient tradition. Again, in his more elaborate works, how rich is their diction, and how superior in its richness to the cumbrous and false pomp of some of his predecessors, who have attempted the epic, — of some of his contemporaries, who have tried to make the supernatural and the mythological impressive, by smothering their fancies in a confusion of "purple and gold language." But it must be remarked, that this moderation and stateliness of manner, this chasteness of imagination, even where it colours most gorgeously and soars highest — this brocade flow of the draperies worn by his muse, which arrange themselves in broad and ample, rather than easy and pliant folds, — characteristics superinduced, perhaps, by the fusion in his mind of the riches of many literatures — give a certain heaviness to his epics as well as to his more fancifully imagined legends. He is impressive and dignified; — though often tender, rarely, if ever, passionate.

The same characteristics may be traced as pervading, though more lightly, many of Dr. Southey's prose writings; but in these they are felt to be a beauty rather than a blemish. The works in question are so voluminous and varied in subject, that a mere enumeration of each would occupy the space which must be allotted to an attempt to characterize them generally. Dr. Southey's range embraces history, biography, essays critical, antiquarian, and philosophical, to say nothing of his many labours as a translator and an editor. In all of these he is entitled to respect; in many he has attained to high excellence. His writings, on the whole, may be said to gratify and instruct rather than command the reader. Their tone is equable in the main, the effect being sought rather in the abundant variety of the matter, which a ripe learning enables him to bestow on the illustration of his subject, than in bold transitions, or views startlingly original. His eloquence (and he is eloquent when the theme demands it) is stately and copious rather than rapid; the utterance of feelings habitually cherished, and not the offspring of sudden impulse. On polemical questions in politics and theology, he is, indeed, sufficiently vehement; but these form an exception to the prevailing character of his writings. At other times they display a continual vein of generous and amiable feeling, — of reflection, alternately quaint, ingenious, or dignified; a reverence for whatever is august in the literature, traditions, or institutions of ancient times; and a familiar acquaintance, beyond all contemporary attainment, with the whole compass of letters. While he is engaged in the calm pursuits of literary speculation, in commemorating deceased excellence, in tracing the legends of other times, or in displaying any worthy and elevated theme, he wins the affections of his reader, whom he alternately amuses or excites. And on turning from this class of works to those in which he appears as a party-writer, the pain with which we observe the totally different character they present, is increased by the regard we have already learned to entertain. This is a subject upon which, as admirers of the author, we do not willingly dwell; but truth requires that it should be distinctly noticed.

Of all Dr. Southey's works, his biographies stand the foremost. He has enriched our literature in a department where it was the poorest, with two works, at least, which have already become classical — the lives, namely, of Nelson and Wesley; to which may be added his latest work, the biography of Cowper. In these he leaves the reader nothing to desire. His narrative is clear, and enhanced with details interesting and nicely proportioned; the prominence of the main subject is well preserved, and the style warms into eloquence or flows on in unaffected ease, as the matter in hand may require. He is especially happy in description and in the art of engaging the reader's sympathies on behalf of his subject; his reflections are gracefully introduced and apposite, and he is never flat or overstrained. Indeed a combination of practised skill, genial feeling, and thorough preparation renders Dr. Southey's biographies the most delightful of his works, and equal, if not superior, to any other in our literature.

Of his historical works, "The History of Brazil," is, we believe, its author's own favourite; and it is excellent for the earnest and engaging manner in which it is written, and for the tokens it displays of learned research in a field rarely trodden. Though its subject is not one of general interest, and the work, therefore, is one more likely to be occasionally consulted than eagerly read, there are episodes and individual passages to which we may return again and again for the mere pleasure of the moment. The History of the Peninsular War must be classed among Dr. Southey's polemical works, in spite of its style, and eloquence, and many scattered passages of exceeding beauty.

Passing the Colloquies of Sir Thomas More, in which their author is exhibited under all his various aspects — a work largely sown with passages of a most thoughtful and placid beauty — passing, too, his "Omniana," in which delightful collection of scattered thoughts and subjects for thought, he was assisted by his friend Coleridge, we must not omit to notice, however briefly, Dr. Southey's attempts (born perhaps, of his two Peninsular journeys) to introduce to modern readers the romantic traditions of Spain and the chivalrous prose epics of a former age. His prose paraphrases of the poems of the Cid, and of the renowned Amadis, and Palmerin of England, will be always precious and delightful to those who have an ear for the accents of old, while their illustrations contain a treasury of valuable matter for the curious; and it is impossible to praise too highly the success with which the author has caught and transfused into his own language the very spirit of these magnificent fables. We are bound, too, to insist upon the valuable service he has rendered in his "Book of the Church," and other of his essays, in pointing to the much neglected riches of our elder divines, whom he has frequented with affectionate reverence. And we are indebted to the peculiar temper of his mind, which seems most powerfully attracted by all that has the prescription of antiquity, for many other treasures, which he has disinterred from the dust to which they have been too carelessly relinquished. It is impossible here to do justice to the translations and revivals of other authors, or to the various literary and critical essays which have proceeded from the same source. It must not, however, be forgotten, that the Quarterly Review was long indebted for many of its most prominent articles to Dr. Southey; and it may be added, that his pen, while it is copious beyond all precedent, is never careless.

More, much more could be added; we could descant, and not unprofitably, upon the excellences of Dr. Southey's style, in which he combines the raciness of our ancient mother English with the polish of later refinement and scholarship; but, ere the present notice be closed, we are bound to advert with just regard to the manner in which its subject has worn the title of a professed man of letters. Whatever be the feeling with respect to certain opinions and tendencies, all must contemplate with sincere respect the tenor of a life wholly devoted to genial study and constant literary exertion, the aim and end of which has been mainly the production of such works as should take their permanent station in the higher walks of literature. We love him, too, for the sympathy he has shown towards struggling poets — towards the early-called and the uneducated; witness his Life of Kirke White, and not a few other notices and prefaces, which he has generously affixed to the works of others infinitely less worthy of public favour. If some of those who have been brought forward under the protection of his name may not possess genius enough to have merited such protection, and we are led to smile at the unequal association, our smile is of kindliness and not of sarcasm. The condition on which Benevolence and Charity walk the earth, is that they be occasionally led astray.