1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 186-91.



"SOUTHEY, 'he of the laureate wreath,' has been alluded to with deference in the course of my strictures, a tribute which his genius alone commanded; for I opened his works, for the first time, with a prejudice anything but in his favour. I had read the various criticisms in the Edinburgh Review on several of his earlier poems, criticisms not more severe than unjust, and I took up 'Thalaba' with an assurance that I should find ample room for merriment. But I was quickly undeceived; for though the versification was not at all to my taste, and though the incidents were extravagant in the highest degree, the careless strength of a gigantic mind, and the fire of genuine inspiration pervaded the whole performance. The same epithets, I think, might be applied to the 'Curse of Kehama.' His 'Joan of Arc, I have not seen; but his 'Madoc' I have read, and shall, I hope, again. It has one passage which I am sorry I cannot repeat to you. I allude to that where a Welsh Minstrel is discovered by an Indian asleep at the foot of a rock. The Indian approaches, and raises his hatchet or his club with the purpose of despatching him, when a wandering breeze of the morning sweeps over the harp. To the simple-minded savage the sound seems to be the warning of the sleeper's guardian spirit, and he turns away astonished, without taking the vengeance he meditated! This I conceive to be one of the most beautiful incidents to be met with in modern poetry.

"Wordsworth is said to have pronounced, in private conversation, that Southey is the greatest poet that has appeared since the time of Milton. I am not prepared to go thus far; but I think it will be admitted by all — it has been avowed by Moore — that he has written the very best poem that has been published since 'Paradise Lost.' I allude to 'Roderick,' which is distinguished by the native, unpretending dignity of its spirit, by the flow and freedom of its blank verse, and by the classic chasteness and simplicity of its narrative. It is perhaps no inconsiderable proof of its harmonious relation of parts, that scarcely a single extract could be made from it which would not suffer by the disjunction, or which would give anything like an idea of the magnificent whole. But if you have read it, you will recall with pleasure — I might use a word of holier emphasis — many scenes and situations of overpowering pathos. You will think of the Royal Goth, in the garb of a hermit, among the ruins of Aurea — of the same penitent personage when he is listening to the confessions of the woman he had dishonoured — of his interview with Count Julian at the well — of his behaviour in the dying moments of the same Count — and, finally, of his heroism in the last animating battle which frees his beloved Spain from her Moorish invaders. No one, you will own, can rise from the perusal of 'Roderick,' without feeling his patriotism increased, and his heart made better."

Pray, said I, have you ever seen any of the poets of whose works you speak with so much enthusiasm? You lived long in the neighbourhood, as it were, of Sir Walter Scott; and you have resided for many years at no great distance from the Lake Poets. Did curiosity, if not a higher motive, ever prompt you to visit them? "Visit them!" exclaimed he, "do you suppose me capable of such presumption? I durst no more have intruded into the presence of Sir Walter Scott, than I durst have undertaken a voyage to America in my mother's washing-tub! Southey, however, I saw by accident, in the year 1833; an event which 1 find thus detailed in certain memoranda of mine:

July 17th.

Mounted the coach at Ambleside about 10 o'clock in the forenoon, and passed through scenes of the wildest and most rugged description, to Keswick. Enquired for the house of Mr. Southey. Was informed that he seldom appeared out of the house, and was accessible only to nobility and gentry. Had the consequently unexpected gratification of seeing Mr. Southey himself leaving his house with a book in his hand. Wondered what kind of book a man like Southey would condescend to read. Waited at a gate through which he passed. Marked with reverence the 'hooked nose' of Byron. I was gazing on SOUTHEY! I saw the head whence had issued 'Roderick the last of the Goths,' and I thought of the battle-cry — "Roderick the Goth! Roderick and Victory! Spain and Vengeance!"

Returned towards Ambleside, admiring as they came again in succession, the rugged forms of the mountains, and the beauty of the lakes — particularly Grasmere. Got a glimpse of the top of Wordsworth's house! of the fields where he muses! and of the neat little chapel in which he worships the Giver of his mighty Intellect!

9 o'clock, evening.

Heard that Wordsworth was in Scotland. Walked towards his house. Reached the gate. All was silent and deserted. Placed my hand on the iron fastener of the gate, and was pleased to feel assured that I touched what Wordsworth had touched, and stood where Wordsworth had stood!"