Robert Southey

John Dix, in "Robert Southey and Joseph Cottle" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 158-73.

And now let me proceed to my "subject proper," the Laureate, whom I had the honour of being acquainted with; and who, at one period, was a kind and copious correspondent of mine.

It is needless to state the circumstances which led to my acquaintance with one of the most voluminous writers of his day. Suffice it to say, that, long before I had the pleasure of seeing the Poet, I had received many letters from him, and have reason to believe that he felt some interest in my welfare. The first time I ever met him personally, was in the year 1838. I was then engaged in a branch of literary labour which had once been occupied by Southey. This had caused him to feel some interest in my proceedings, and led to a kind wish on the part of a mutual friend that I should make his acquaintance.

It was but seldom that he left his beautiful home at Keswick — and he might indeed have been termed a Hermit Poet, for his life was one of almost strict seclusion. Consequently his outward and visible man was little known, except to Lake Tourists, who were not unfrequently a source of much annoyance to him, by their intrusive visits. He once complained much of this, in one of his letters to me — in which he said, that his daughters could never row him on the Lake, nor could he ever take a quiet walk, without being stared at by those who imagined that a Poet was some outlandish animal. When he did leave home, it was generally for the purpose of making arrangements with his publishers — for he was a methodical man of business — or, for a recreative visit to his native city, where he had many near and dearly-attached friends.

I must own, that from what I had heard of Southey's coldness, and even occasional repulsiveness of manner, I felt some trepidation, as I lifted Mr. Cottle's

knocker, one evening, for it was from Mr. Joseph Cottle that I had received a kind invitation to meet Mr. Southey at his house, where he was at that time on a visit. Yet it was with no little gratification that I anticipated meeting one whose writings had afforded me so much delight, though, as I have intimated, expectation was alloyed by anxiety.

On entering Mr. Cottle's little parlour, after greeting my kind host, a gentleman, whom I recognised instantly, from the portraits I had seen of him, rose, held out both hands, and kindly accosted me; he was tall, and looked, in his solemn suit of black, more like a sedate clergyman than I had imagined. His manners were, however, so frank and kind, without any appearance of condescension, that I felt at once at my ease, and was, in a few moments, to use a very familiar expression, "at home."

Let me here digress a little, in order to give a slight pen-and-ink sketch of my host himself, whose name has been very long, if not during the last quarter of a century, very intimately associated with literature. All the reading world must remember Lord Byron's attack upon him, but all the world does not know that to Mr. Cottle belongs the honour of having befriended and patronized Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, in their youthful days, and that he first introduced them to the literary ranks, by publishing, at his own risk, and for their especial benefit, their first productions.

There are some men who outlive their reputations, whose intellectual fires pale before the blaze of brighter stars in the literary hemisphere. I do not mean to say that Mr. Cottle only lives in the cutting satire of Byron, or as the lettered accoucheur of the "Bard of Rydal," the late Laureate, and the "old man eloquent," but certainly he has of late years so entirely withdrawn from literary pursuits, that, were he dead, he could scarcely be less thought of. As it is, an occasional hymn in a new "selection" is the only intimation that he exists. A few years since he published some early recollections of Coleridge, which fell almost still-born from the press; but that may be accounted for, they having been published, I believe, in a city notorious for its neglect of literature. His early works consisted of epic poems on "Malvern Hills," "The Fall of Cambria," "Alfred," and "The Messiah," — productions which are now seldom met with, excepting on dusty shelves, side by side with the Gentleman's Magazine. In private life, Mr. Cottle is most estimable; and in the enjoyment of lettered ease, and surrounded by all that is exquisite and refined, he surveys, with the serene enjoyment of a true Christian, the retrospect of a calm and well-spent life. As an early friend and associate of men so eminent as those to whom I have just referred, a sketch of him cannot but be interesting, and therefore I introduce it here, as the present occasion seems a fitting one for the purpose.

If, then, reader, you would wish to look upon our venerable friend, just by an effort of the imagination, (a faster mode of travelling even than by the express train of the Great Western Railway,) accompany me to Bristol; it is an old place, rich in antiquities. As we drive up the street leading into the heart of the city, on our right hand is the old church of the Knights Templars, which leans so much out of the perpendicular, that one hurries unconsciously by it, as if it were every moment in danger of falling. When its bells ring out, this old tower shakes fearfully, and so much does it "seriously incline," that I believe one cannot stand against it with the heels and back of the head touching the decayed free-stone of which it is composed. It absolutely seems to lean over the dingy old houses which surround it. Proceeding on our way into the city, we arrive at a bridge, the successor of the one about which Chatterton published his first Rowleian forgery. Passing over this, we enter the High Street alluded to by the same marvellous boy, in his ballad of Sir Charles Bawdyn; and in the next street, Wine-street, we observe a draper's shop, in which Southey was born. Not far from this is Broad-street, in which, at a well-known hotel, the early days of Sir Thomas Lawrence were spent, the great painter's father having been landlord of the inn. At the other extremity of Wine-street frowned, within my remembrance, a dark pile of building, the Bridewell, in which Savage died; and not three minutes' walk from thence is the old Mint, in the dreary grave-yard of which he rotted years and years ago. But these associations have led me away, as they are apt to do, from my main object, which let us turn and pursue.

It is Sunday morning, and from a hundred church towers and steeples the chiming bells ring cheerfully and solemnly out; those from the noble church of St. Mary Redcliffe,

The pryde of Bristowe and the Western Londe,

being heard sonorous and distinct above all the rest. With a sad, but usual neglect of all that is beautiful in art, the Bristolians have allowed the finest parish church in England to fall into decay; and, so its stones are crumbling to dust, or falling one by one, and decay sits busily employed upon buttress and pinnacle. Chatterton's monument, a wretched architectural abortion, which resembles a huge ornamental extinguisher, with a Dutch doll on its top, (apt illustration!) is on our left-hand as we ascend Redcliffe Hill, and proceed towards a neat place of worship, alluded to in another part of this volume, as the chapel where I sketched Rowland Hill. As we enter the enclosure of the building, we perceive a carriage, drawn by an old white horse, at the door, and from it alights a gentleman, who, in consequence of a lameness, experiences great difficulty in walking into the building. Let us, too, enter, for within we shall have a better opportunity of observing him.

In the very furthest pew from the pulpit he has taken his place. He is an old man, for he cannot, from his general appearance, have numbered less than seventy-five years. His head, which is thinly covered with grey hairs, is well shaped, but rather flattened on its superior portion. As might be expected, time, which has thinned his flowing hair, has also dimmed that benevolent grey eye, for a pair of spectacles almost conceal them. The prevailing characteristic of his combined features is benevolence, and yet there is no want of decision in his expression; the compressed lips indicate that plainly enough. He looks like what he is, a gentleman in easy circumstances, but you would seek in vain for any peculiarities telling of striking genius. And can that quiet-looking old gentleman be him whom Lord Byron so mercilessly abused? One is tempted to say, as we gaze on his bland countenance, "why he looks as if he could not call down the resentment of any mortal man." What could

Joseph of Bristol, the brother of Amos,

have done to merit the bitter denunciations of his lordship? The reader, however, must be content to solve these enigmas himself; I only profess to give the outlines of his outward and visible man. But let us return to Southey.

The personal appearance of Robert Southey was very striking. He was, as I have intimated, tall and slightly built. His forehead, rather receding, and not, phrenologically speaking, indicative of great acquirements, was surmounted and partially shaded by an abundance of white, silvery hair, combed upwards, and forming a very striking contrast with his jet black, magnificently arched eyebrows, beneath which glowed [that is the best word to express what I mean] two of the most brilliant dark eyes I ever beheld. Their beauty did not consist so much in their brilliancy, as in their deep, contemplative expression. His nose was remarkably aquiline, so much so, that it approached to the "beak" formation. But it was in the mouth, which, after all, is the most expressive feature of the human face, that the peculiar charm of Southey's looks lay — the upper lip was finely curved, and slightly projected over the lower — but it is in vain to attempt a description of it. Nearly every painter has failed to transfer it to canvas — indeed, I have never seen a good likeness of the Laureate, for it was no easy matter to catch the ever-flitting lights and shadows which, with every changing emotion, passed over his countenance.

Tea was announced shortly after my arrival — Mr. Cottle's sister (since dead) doing the honours. By the way, I may as well mention that Mr. Cottle and his sister then resided together, much in the same way as did dear delightful Charles Lamb with his beloved "Barbara." In both cases the gentlemen were bachelors, and the ladies happy in single blessedness, and the society of their literary brothers. After pouring out the well manufactured infusion of Congou, Miss Cottle happened to address the Laureate as "Doctor." "My dear Miss Cottle," said he, "do call me Mr. Southey, or Robert, as you used to do 'lang syne;' but not 'Doctor.' I dislike nothing so much as that, amongst old friends."

We spent a pleasant hour over the crockery — but all of us know that tea-table conversation is not easily transferable to paper. I am no Boswell, and so the reader must imagine a conversational melange — an olla podrida of opinions, pleasant enough whilst passing over the mental palate, but leaving nothing either very nutritious or substantial behind. There were one or two other visitors, but as they were not "known" writers, I need not mention them here.

A great deal has been said about Southey's reserve in company, and many have accused him of unpardonable pride and hauteur. This I think unjust. He was naturally reserved, and his pursuits tended to make him more so. The Laureate, in his poem on the Hollytree, has said:

So serious should my youth appear among
The thoughtless throng;
So would I seem among the young and gay,
More grave than they.

His sedateness did not, I think, spring from pride; and they who knew him better than I did, hold the same opinion. Charles Lamb said of him, that he was intended for a monk, but never were there two more direct opposites in social life than Southey and the author of Elia.

Southey's favourite attitude was that of lying back in his chair, his elbows resting on the arms, and the tips of his forefingers placed on the inner portion of his eyebrows, over the surface of which they continually traversed, his eyes being closed excepting when he spoke. The conversation, atone time, turned on Byron — a ticklish subject for both Cottle and Southey. The latter said, somewhat egotistically, I thought — but that was Southey's weak point — "No man can honour Byron's genius more than myself; but I fancy I prevented him doing as much harm as he might have done."

At that period Mr. Southey was busily engaged in preparing the new edition of Cowper's works, and in writing the Life of the Bard of Olney. "I have been," said he, "COOPERING all the way down." I had never heard the poet's name pronounced before as he pronounced it, Cooper, and ventured to make the remark to him. He said, the poet's family, and Mrs. Unwin, whom he had once seen, never used to say Cowper; although that was unquestionably the more correct. He then showed us an original poem of Cowper's, and said, "I can also show you the first letter which it is believed Cowper ever wrote. I stumbled on it by mere chance, at a gentleman's house, where, about a week ago, I stayed for the night; so oddly, sometimes, do things of this kind turn up." He then requested his son to fetch him his writing case, from which he produced the letter, which he read to our party. It is now included in a supplementary volume to the Life and Works.

We had a long and delightful conversation respecting poor Cowper, and I remember Southey's saying, with much earnestness, that he could have given Kehama, Roderick, and indeed all he had ever written, to have been the author of the lines to his Mother's Picture, which he characterized as being among the most touchingly beautiful to be found in the whole range of English poetry. "What a mournful thing," he added, "that his mental vision was so often obscured." Alas! even then the cloud no bigger than a man's hand was to be seen in Southey's horizon; a cloud which was soon to cast its melancholy shadow over his own fine intellect. I remember, too, that, in connexion with this subject, he alluded to his wife, who had then very recently died, after years of insanity. "I had," said he once to a friend, "for a long, dreary time, a living death constantly before me, in the form of Edith. We took our meals, and associated with each other to the last, and I question whether I was more fondly attached to her in her bright days than in her days of darkness."

Some one in the company inquired of Southey whether he intended to he present at the forthcoming meeting of the British Association. The reply was characteristic. "No," said he, "I never go into crowds." A strong feature in his character was his love of solitude. His chosen retreat was his library, and men's works, he, in a great degree, preferred to their society. Of his books he himself says:—

My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse night and day.

It is a fact that Southey's conversation partook, in some degree, of the egotism which too often defaces his writings.

As an instance of the latter, hear what he says, in a letter to William, Taylor, of Norwich: — "'Me judice.' I am a good poet, but a better historian." Mind, I do not mean to say that he be-praised himself that evening — but there certainly was evident a considerable partiality for his own, works in the remarks he let fall.

Southey's extreme kindness to young and struggling men of mind is not so well known, or s generally appreciated as it should be. One instance fell under my own notice. I knew in B— a young man, a lawyer's clerk, who showed so decided a genius for painting that it was really painful to see him drudging over dry parchments and musty records. I advised him to copy a certain picture, which I knew would much interest Southey — he did so, and I sent it, with a letter from the artist, to Southey at Keswick. I also informed him of the circumstance, and asked his advice as to the young painter's welfare. Southey, who was always as punctual as clockwork in his correspondence — for he never allowed a letter to remain unanswered for a single day — in a short time wrote the young man an exceedingly kind epistle, and so interested himself in his behalf, that, at the time I write, the quondam lawyer's clerk is a popular exhibitor.

A few days after the party at Cottle's, I accompanied Southey in a call on the Bishop of B—, at Clifton. Southey did not send up his card, and consequently the Bishop, who deemed it might be some ordinary visitor, sent down a message that he was engaged. We left, Southey having mentioned his name to the footman. We had not gone far before the lacquey came breathlessly after us — for his lordship, on learning the name of his illustrious visitor, was horrified at the idea of sending from his door the author of the "Book of the Church." We returned — apologies were made, and a very pleasant hour spent.

In 1841, after wondering at the unusual circumstance of my letters to Southey remaining unreplied to, for he was the most punctual and courteous of correspondents, I received from a friend a heart-touching epistle informing me of the Laureate's insanity. It came on me like a thunder-clap, after a long, ominous silence. Could it be, that he whose voluminous labours had delighted and informed thousands — that the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Historian — was the victim of "The last infirmity of noble minds." Alas! it was even so. His brain was worn out.

The fervent spirit, working out its way,
Fretted the puny body to decay,
And o'er-informed its tenement of clay.

I was told, by one who witnessed the sad scene, that, as he walked along the streets of Keswick, leaning, a frail, broken-up man, on the arm of an attached and devoted friend, he would stare in stupid wonder at flocks of geese, and breathe an incoherent wish that he "was as happy as they." His insanity was of the melancholy and sombre kind, as might have been expected.

To the last, he retained his old affection for his books. The way into his library he easily found, and thither it was his wont to repair; and he would sit with a black letter volume open on his lap, gazing on one page for hours, and at times moving his fingers, as if making written extracts. Out of the library he never could find his way, without the aid of a guide. But the ruin of a great mind, like his, is too sad a spectacle for contemplation. After two years of mental incapacity,

Death came o'er him gently,
As slumber o'er a child.

There was no flashing up of the taper before death — no lucid moment — but during his life, he had made the great preparation, and Hope illuminated the faces of all who gazed upon him when he died.

A monument has been erected to the memory of Southey in Bristol Cathedral. Having incidentally alluded to the apathy of Bristolians in such matters, I am tempted to justify my remarks by an extract from a Bristol paper bearing upon this subject. The journal referred to says—

"On the death of this distinguished character, nearly three years since, an anxiety was felt by a few individuals that some permanent memorial should exist of his connexion with Bristol, the place of his birth, where he resided for a considerable portion of his life, and imbibed that attachment to literary pursuits so forcibly exemplified in the whole course of his existence, and which never ceased to retain a prominent place in his memory, and a strong hold on his affections.

"It was sanguinely expected by the persons alluded to, that the desire which they felt would be generally participated by the inhabitants of the city, and accordingly a public meeting was convened, for the purpose of determining on the best mode of carrying the object into effect. The result showed that they had miscalculated as to the extent of the interest taken in such subjects, for though several persons attended, and sentiments in accordance with the design were unanimously expressed, yet it was evident that little, if any, public impression had been made. The amount of subscription that was set on foot further evinced, after the lapse of a considerable time, the absence of a general interest in the object.

"We regret to put this statement on record, and the more so as it contrasts so unfavourably for Bristol, with the feeling manifested by the inhabitants of Keswick, where Southey resided during the latter portion of his life, who permitted no lengthened period to elapse before they raised an appropriate and finely-executed monument over his tomb, including a full-sized recumbent figure of the deceased."

The Bristol monument is a bust of Southey, by Bayley, with the following inscription on the pedestal:—

Born at Bristol,
October IV., MDCCLXXIV.,
Died at Keswick,