1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Mary Russell Mitford, in "Authors Associated with Places. Thomas Chatterton — Robert Southey — Samuel Taylor Coleridge — William Wordsworth" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 392-94.



Both Coleridge, and Southey were married at Bristol; Coleridge certainly, and Southey I think, at the beautiful church of St. Mary Redcliffe. Upon my mentioning this to the parish clerk, very learned upon the subject of Chatterton, he was surprised into confessing his ignorance of the fact, and got as near as a parish clerk ever does to an admission that he had never heard the first of those illustrious names. So strange a thing is local reputation.

Plenty of people, however, were eager to show me the localities rendered famous by Southey, and I looked with delight on his father's house, his early home. How great and how good a man he was! how fine a specimen of the generosity of labor! Giving so largely, so liberally, so unostentatiously, not from the superfluities of an abundant fortune, but from the hard-won earnings of, his indefatigable toil! Some people complain of his change of politics; and I, for my own particular part, wish very heartily that he had been content with a very moderate modification of opinion. But does not the violent republicanism of youth often end in the violent toryism of age? Does not the pendulum, very, forcibly set in motion, swing as far one way as it has swung the other? Does not the sun rise in the east and set in the west?

As to his poetry, I suspect people of liking it better than they say. He was not Milton or Shakspeare, to be sure; but are we to read nobody but Shakspeare or Milton? I will venture to add the "Lines on a Holly-tree:"

O reader! hast thou ever stood to see
The holly-tree?
The eye that contemplates it well, perceives
Its glossy leaves
Ordered by an intelligence so wise
As might confound the atheist's sophistries.

Below, a circling fence, its leaves are seen
Wrinkled and keen;
No grazing cattle through their prickly round
Can reach to wound;
But as they vow where nothing is to fear,
Smooth and unarmed the pointless leaves appear.

I love to view these things with anxious eyes
And moralize:
And in this wisdom of the holly-tree
Can emblems see
Wherewith perchance to make a pleasant rhyme,
One that will profit in the after-time.

Thus though abroad perchance I might appear
Harsh and austere,
To those who on my leisure would intrude
Reserved and rude,
Gentle at home amid my friends I'd be,
Like the high leaves upon the holly-tree.

And should my youth, as youth is apt I know,
Some harshness show,
All vain asperities I day by day
Would wear away,
Till the smooth temper of my age should be
Like the high leaves upon the holly-tree.

And as, when all the summer trees are seen
So bright and green;
The holly leaves their fadeless hue display
Less bright than they,
But when the bare and wintry woods we see,
What then so cheerful as the holly-tree?

So serious should my youth appear among
The thoughtless throng,
So would I seem among the young and gay
More grave than they,
That in my age as cheerful I might be
As the green winter of the holly-tree.

But he has not done himself justice in this comparison. Never was a man more beloved by all who approached him. Even his peculiarities, if he had any, were genial and pleasant. One anecdote I happen to know personally. He was invited to a large evening party, at Tavistock House, the residence of Mr. Perry, proprietor of the "Morning Chronicle," a delightful person, where men of all parties met, forgetting their political differences in social pleasure. The guest was so punctual, that only two young inmates were in the room to receive him.

"What are we to have to-night?" inquired he of Miss Lunan, Mr. Perry's niece, and Professor Person's stepdaughter.

"Music, I suppose," was the reply; at least I know that Catalani is coming!"

"Ah!" rejoined the poet, "then I shall come another time. You will not miss me. Make my excuses!" and off he ran, laughing at his own dislike to opera singers and bravura songs.