The Lake poets had a decided objection to be classed together as a school. Coleridge remonstrated with Jeffrey on this head, who promised to strike his name out of the firm. "I," he said, "object to Wordsworth's hobbies about childhood and the rustic nature of poetic language. Why, then, class me as one of his sect?" Southey was no less remonstrative. "I," said the author of "Thalaba," "dislike the lyrical ballads. Besides, two or three of my epics were written before I knew Wordsworth. It is, therefore, a blunder to place me in the same boat with him and Coleridge." These protests were rational enough, so far as regarded the different styles in which each poet worked out the same system. But they could not obliterate the identity of the principles which permeate the entire body of their poetry. Wordsworth is eminently psychological; Coleridge fantastically mystical; and Southey gorgeously objective. But none recognise the sensuous phases of that keen passion which lovers feel for each other; each lay the same stress upon the domestic affections as the great instrument in the hands of the muse for exalting human nature; each intrude the ethical principle into every department of their art; each consider simplicity of language as the form, and love of nature as the soul, of all true poetry; each regarded Pope as one of the lowest, and Cowper as one of the highest names in the English Parnassus. It was this unity of principle which has associated these writers in one class, notwithstanding their clamorous assertions of self-independence and mutual dislike for each other's peculiarities.
It would seem that this desire of the Lake poets, each to stand upon his own basis, arose more or less from a feeling that they would lose somewhat of that intellectual height which each vainly flattered himself he was about to attain, if he had not reached the loftiest eminence already. For the Lake poets were above any other class of men gifted with a large amount of self-conceit, and with no ordinary sense of their own importance. Wordsworth would pull out his pieces with the ostentation of Statius, and exclaim, "If you don't admire that, you can have no discernment of the pure and beautiful in art." He told Crabbe Robinson he could not respect the mother who could read without emotion his poem,
"Once in a lonely hamlet I sojourned;"
and he assured him that any reader who did not appreciate
"Two voices are there, one is of the sea,"
must be singularly deficient in intellectual refinement and moral purity. It is rich to hear Coleridge ascribe the first unpopularity of "The Ancient Mariner" to being linked with such stuff as "Peter Bell;" and Wordsworth repay the compliment by ascribing the unpopularity of "Peter Bell" to being weighted with "The Ancient Mariner." But Southey left his two compeers far behind in the vanity of self-adulation. His "History of Brazil" he compared to "Herodotus," and his "Madoc" to the "Odyssey." In one of his laureate odes he thus addresses himself,—
Thou whom rich nature at thy happy birth,
Blest in her bounty with the largest dower
That heaven indulges to a child of earth.
And he subsequently informs his readers that all the good and wise admire him. He once kidnapped Shelley into his study at Keswick, under the delusion that he had a fine treat in store for him, and, after he secured the doors, pulled out the voluminous roll of "Madoc," with which he dosed his hearer until the young enthusiast fell asleep under the table [author's note: Jefferson Hogg's Life of Shelley]. Southey has left it on record that he considered Scott's poems, in comparison to his own, as the mere offshoots of the cabbage-garden, contrasted in point of durability with the umbrageous oaks of the forest [author's note: Southey's Letters, in the Correspondence of the Rt. Hon. J. W. Croker]. It does not speak much for his sincerity that, while expressing such opinions, he should in a letter to Sir Walter, of the same date, congratulate that gentleman on having, together with himself, scaled the highest summits of Parnassus. What Scott thought of the compliment does not appear; but, from the manner in which he tossed the laureateship to Southey, I fancy, he would have preferred going a little lower down, to sharing so exalted a position with his contemporary. But Scott's nature was chivalric. He had all the humility of a great genius. Instead of exalting himself at the expense of others, he saw so many defects in his own compositions that he could not bear to revert to them. He exclaimed, in the language of Macbeth,
"I am ashamed
To think on what I've done; look on't again,
I dare not."
This humiliating feeling is the mark of a great artist who is impressed with the wide chasm existing between his own performances and that ideal type of excellence which is ever haunting his soul. But where we get as its substitute a spirit of self-laudation, a disposition to seize upon every opportunity which presents itself; as a sort of platform for the mountebank exhibition of our own excellences, there the highest style of art cannot exist.
Though Southey stands much more apart from Coleridge and Wordsworth than these do from each other, there is none in whom the principles of the school are more offensively predominant. In subjective poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, who drew their stores out of their own minds, it was natural that their creations should reflect their own peculiar habits of thought; but Southey was a poet eminently objective. His aim was to reproduce the actual; and, therefore, when he attempted to build up lofty epics, illustrating national characteristics, upon the foundation of one-half of human nature, the result was a successive series of failures. Love is the cardinal passion of the human race. But Southey is at as much pains to keep his pages free from any spontaneous burst of that passion as if his poems, like the Greek plays, were intended as solemn adjuncts to a religious festival. His lovers, therefore, behave as coldly to each other as brother and sister. They are only so many abstract embodiments of the domestic virtues. The consequence is that a dreary pall of monotony hangs over most of his poems. His incidents lack variety; his characters want relief. For sallies of inspiration, we get only amplifications of rhetoric; for exquisite touches of nature, stilted sentimentality. He is in some measure obliged to be starch, and affected, and extravagant; for in making use only of one-half of the elements of our common nature, he has to inflate the other half into undue proportions-to exaggerate a part until it bears some semblance to the whole.
To reproduce the actual, to make the past live over again in the present, requires a poet of very liberal sympathies, and with some practical acquaintance with the feelings, tendencies, and struggles of his own generation. But in both these qualities Southey was singularly deficient. Whether as regards the constructive powers within, or his knowledge, or his appreciation, of the real world without, he was about the last man to shape into so many living actualities the events of any spirit-stirring drama. His sympathies were narrow, and his experience of men as confined as his sympathies. The bigoted unitarianism of his youth was only exchanged for a still more bigoted Calvinism in his mature age. Even Coleridge, ensheathed as he was in the glittering armour of the German philosophies, failed to inoculate his companion's hard mind with any insight into those distinctions which have revolutionized metaphysical science. Out of the contracted circle in which his views were confined, he seldom looked, except to hiss out, in short glittering epigrammatic sentences, his dislikes for the dense bulk of humanity lying beyond his own pale of orthodoxy. That such a man should confine himself to his library, and abandon the great world for books, was strictly in keeping with his mental constitution, and with the exclusive doctrines that constitution had espoused; but that he should attempt to rival Homer or Dante was a serious blunder. His habits acted upon his temperament, and his exclusive opinions upon both, to generate that state of mind in which any truthful delineation of mankind, engaged upon the broad highways of human action, was a sheer impossibility.
Southey's strong point is the delineation of natural scenery; the weakest, the selection of commonplace topics, which, in his epics, he amplifies with such prolixity that the jaded reader abandons the subject through very irksomeness of the flesh. The avoiding all passionate emotions which would conflict with his system of ethics necessarily narrowed the variety of combinations into which he could mould his fable, and threw him upon the upholsteries of his subject. His characters, in consequence of not being brought into positions in which their genuine nature can be developed, are mere pasteboard creations, and cease to interest us in proportion as they are removed from common life. In "Madoc" there were several incidents capable of romantic treatment, but these were ruthlessly thrust aside for embassies, state ceremonials, religious processions, jarring family discords, battles, and marriage feasts, not having the poor merit of being dovetailed into each other, but standing apart like isolated facts within the memory of a disjointed experience. Madoc himself is one of those perfect characters of whom the reader entertains not the slightest hopes after the first half-dozen pages. His virtues, and those of his companions, whatever merit they might have in a sermon, are irreclaimably stupid in an epic. Southey appears to have laboured under the delusion that he could make prosaic topics interesting by the force of his rhetoric, as Wordsworth made prosaic characters interesting by the force of his genius.
No poet could ever have a subject embracing more variety of romantic detail than "The Fall of Roderic." The shock of battles, diversified by the tale of innocent and guilty love; the Christian faith sinking beneath the superior weight of the Mussulman, only to be restored by the rekindled fires of patriotism; the archbishop forsaking his mitre for the turban, in order to satisfy the cravings of voluptuous passion, and the wilder dreams of a regal ambition; the contrast of Moorish costumes with the garb of Spanish mountaineers commingling, either in fight or festive revelry, among the most sublime and picturesque fastnesses of the Asturias; the plotting chieftain and the ascetic monk; the faithless wife who achieves her husband's ruin, that she may consummate her guilty passion in the arms of his Moorish rival; — all these formed the materials of a series of sensational groupings, which, in the hand of a master, would not have allowed the reader to lay down the book until the whole story had gone through his mind.. But in the hands of Southey no interest is awakened; the theme becomes dull and spiritless. There is not the slightest attempt at construction of plot. By-tales which might have formed agreeable episodes, if treated apart, are confusedly entangled with the main trunk of the story. No character excites our sympathy; the sequence of no event, our curiosity. We are never made breathless with the untrammelling of consequences, or dazed with the electric shocks of passion, till
Function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is but what is not:
for the poet has here, as in "Madoc," the unhappy knack of passing over the romantic features of his story, while he reserves all his prolixity for the treatment of its baldest incidents, or of such topics as merely afford scope for objective imitation. The loves of Florinda and Roderic; Egelona's desertion of the Goth for the Moor; the intrigues of Guisla and Oppas, — these hardly come in for a passing glance. But the reader is wearied to death with the pageantry of war, with the ceremony of knighthood, with the pomp of coronations, with the vagabond wanderings of Roderic, and insipid discussions upon free-will and fate, until he closes the book with despair, feeling that a great subject has been lost for want of a great master.
Southey has shown more ability in "Thalaba" and "Kehama" than in "Madoc " or "Roderic." For here his talent for gorgeous scene-painting had fuller scope, and his want of power to reproduce the actual is not so sensibly felt in the delineation of beings who belong to the fairy world of Eastern imagination. But it is this circumstance which must ever prevent these poems from acquiring a strong hold over the popular mind. We are too insulated to take much interest even in fiction intertwined with continental life and manners; but when we come to tales enveloped in the crust of Indian or Arabian mythologies, stript of the passionate witchery and love intrigues which could alone make them life-like or interesting, our feelings amount to something like revulsion. The wizard tricks and demon enchantments which form the staple material of these poems; the embodiment of the filial virtues in the chief personages, and the complete manner in which the actors ignore all their flesh-and-blood impulses, make these stories suitable intellectual food for the nursery; but the classical and ornate diction in which they are conveyed must always erect an impassable barrier between them and the juvenile members of the community.
Southey, it appears, had some idea of embodying the principal mythologies of the world in so many narrative poems, as Homer and Virgil in their epics had embodied the religion of Rome and Greece. Could he have done as much in "Kehama" and "Thalaba" for the creed of the Brahmin or the Mahometan, I readily allow, these epics, under one point of view, would have been natural, as representing the feelings and embodying the convictions of a large section of the human race. We should then have had a standard by which to judge of their propriety, of their truthfulness to nature, and of their adequacy as pictures of the state of society which they attempt to represent. But this is the very point in which the poet breaks down. No man would recognise in Thalaba the cold, austere, moonstruck vagrant, dead to all charms of female voluptuousness, a type of his race, any more than in the chaste Oneiza, one of those seductive houri, the indulgence in whose multiplied society, and not their solitary companionship, constitutes the Mahometan's highest conception of bliss. The fact is, Southey has combined with the external ritual, ablutions, and prayers of Mahometanism, the sombre virtues and rewards of Calvinistic Christianity, — a combination as incongruous as the blending of summer and winter in the same picture. In "Kehama," the same grotesque associations are carried out. Though the Hindoo and Mahometan religions stand out in bold conflict with each other, Southey can see no other points of difference but the omission of the ablutions, and the introduction of more supernatural spheres, giving wider scope to pantomimic trick and wizard machinery. There is hardly a character, or combination of incidents, in the one story which has not its counterpart in the other. Kailyal is only another name for Oneiza, and Ladurlad for Moath, as Kehama is for Mohareb, Khawla for the Lorrinite, and Thalaba for Glendoveer. Oneiza is attempted to be ravished by Aloadin, as Kailyal is by Arvalan. The palatial structures of Shedad correspond to those of the submarine city of Baly, and the cave of Domdaniel to the vaults of Padalon. Where the incidents are varied in "Kehama," it is rather to remove the story to a still farther distance from the Hindoo system, than to bring us closer to it. In that system, if one thing be more prominent than another, it is the spirit of caste, excluding anything like an interchange of affection between women and the higher spiritual powers. Yet this intercommunion of sentiment, this equality of feeling, so repugnant to the fundamental notions of the Hindoo religion, is made the cardinal hinge on which the whole poem turns. Kailyal, after going through a series of flirtations with Glendoveer, is transported along with that spirit to the bowers of bliss. This is about as incongruous as if Moore, with a view of illustrating the spirit of Christianity, had made the embrace of his angels the means of spiritualizing the voluptuous creatures who had drawn them from their spheres, and sent the women back with them to carry on their carnal intercourse in heaven.
If the loves of Kailyal and Glendoveer are little in accordance with the Hindoo religion, they are as much out of conformity with nature. The style in which they are depicted strongly remind us of what we occasionally hear at burlesques. This arose in some degree from the necessity of the situation, which forced him to represent love in its spiritual aspects, — a task for which he was utterly unfitted, as well as from a feeling that anything bordering on the sensuous divorced poetry from the austere ethical views it seems to have been a fundamental principle of the Lake school to inculcate. When, therefore, Southey brings his characters into such a position as to lead his readers to expect a burst of genuine passion, instead of the mixed play of feeling, the infinitely diversified blending of the ethereal with the sensuous which constitutes love, he is obliged to introduce some ridiculous machinery, some prosaic incident; some stage trick to fill up the foreground, which completely mars the effect of the picture, and awakens in his readers no other feelings but those of disappointment. No poet, perhaps, ever had a finer occasion for the display of his powers in this branch of his art than Southey, when he lands the Glendoveer and Kailyal on Mount Meru. The maid was the fairest of the daughters of men. The spirit is described as ethereally accoutred with archangelic wings, in whose face youth smiled celestial, and in whose limbs was agility of strength combined with graceful curvature of beauty. Here an occasion presented itself for eclipsing Byron and Moore on their own ground, by bringing out into bold relief the spiritual traits of this passion, of which they had given us too much of the mere material element. But how does Southey turn it to account? Instead of marking in the two lovers the dawn of that passion whose growth is as ethereal as the first flashes of light which morning paints upon an Eastern sky, Southey makes Glendoveer first engage the affections of Kailyal by performing a series of aquatic feats in the lake spread out at her feet, at which she gazes with the same amazement as a village girl astounded at the somersaults of a tumbler at a fair. To put an end to this unsatisfactory state of things, Camdeo, a sort of Indian Cupid, is introduced, "riding," as the poet phrases it, "on his Lory."
"O ye," he cried, "who have defied
The Rajah, will ye mock my power?...
Shall ye alone, of all in story,
Boast impenetrable hearts?
Hover here, my gentle Lory,
Gently hover, while I see
To whom has fate decreed the glory,
To the Glendoveer or me.
While thus ejaculating, Glendoveer
Moved slowly o'er the lake with gliding flight;
Anon, with sodden stroke and strong,
In rapid course careering swept along;
Now shooting downward from his heavenly height,
Plunged in the deep below;
Then rising, soared again,
And shook the sparkling waters off like rain.
["Curse of Kehama," — Mount Meru, b. x., s. 19, 20.]
At him thus engaged Camdeo let fly, but with no effect, for a man in a cold bath is not likely to be wounded by the fiery darts of love:—
"Ah, wanton!" cried the Glendoveer,
"Go, aim at idler hearts,
Thy skill is baffled here!
A deeper love I hear that maid divine—
A love that springeth from a higher will,
A holier power than thine!"
Then Camdeo tries his skill upon Kailyal with the same result:—
"Ah, wanton!" cried the Glendoveer,
No power hast thon for mischief here!
Choose thoo some idle breast,
For these are proof, by nobler thoughts possest.
Go, to thy plains of Matra, go,
And string again thy broken bow."
Now it turns out in the sequel that the Glendoveer and Kailyal were all along deeply in love with each other. This piece of purism is, therefore, as much out of character with nature and the drift of the poem, as it is in keeping with the burlesque imagery and silly language in which it is expressed.
Southey's strength in these two epics lies in mere objective description. He materializes everything. His imitations are never flushed with the lines of the imaginative element. In painting even his best scenes of love or tenor, he copies the outward lineaments of his objects, without imparting any of the fire or Promethean force which kindles the life within. The world of impressions which other poets awaken by a startling metaphor or simile, as Spenser with his
Una's angel face,
Which made a sunshine in a shady place;
or Milton's description of Satan, startling the two fair angels, by springing suddenly into the air like a sudden blaze from the ignition of a heap of gunpowder, we get a mere catalogue of the physical properties which the object of his description makes palpable to the senses. One of the best passages in "Kehama," which aims at spiritual embodiment, is that depicting the horror which Kailyal feels on encountering Arvalan:—
That spectre fixed his eyes upon her full;—
The light which shone in their accursed orbs
Was like a light from hell,
And it grew deeper, kindling with the view.
She could not turn her sight
From that infernal gaze, which like a spell
Bound her, and held her rooted to the ground.
It palsied every power,
Her limbs avail'd her not in that dread hour,
There was no moving thence;
Thought, memory, sense, were gone
She heard not now the tiger's nearer cry,
She thought not on her father now,
Her cold heart's-blood ran back,
Her hand lay senseless on the bough it clasp'd,
Her feet were motionless
Her fascinated eyes
Like the stone eye-balls of a statue fix'd,
Yet conscious of the sight that blasted them.
["The Separation," b. v., s. 12.]
But who does not recognise here mere mechanical or routine description, the same effect weakened by iterated strokes, — the form rooted to the ground, the motionless feet, the limbs which would not be moved, the benumbed sense, or if anything more spiritual is attempted, as the light in Arvalan's eyes kindling with the view, and shining like light from hell, who does not perceive in the effort the weakest possible reflex of sublime passages, which in the compass of a line and a half compress more thought than Southey could possibly convey in a volume? The fact is there is little scope for mere objective description in delineating the higher phases of feeling or action, and when Southey ventures into this sphere, he has to replace the life-creating thought and consuming fire, which can alone give birth and impart animation to great conceptions, by rhetorical amplitude and spasmodic expression. Hence, in developing human incident, he is generally weak, prolix, and unaffective. His characters seem to move like certain pasteboard figures on wires, and to be jerked into their positions by no governing impulses which human nature can supply. But in the delineation of inanimate nature, in reproducing the material features of imposing scenery-in any combination, in fact, of external objects which does not require the exertion of a lofty imagination or an original fancy to impress upon the mind, there the poet is omnipotent.
Southey's talent for scene-painting — call it slapdash if you will, yet marvellous of its kind — is splendidly evinced in his description of the ancient sepulchres and submarine city of Baly, which makes us doubly regret that the rest of the poem should not have been executed in the same masterly spirit. For the material splendour of his scenery is out of all character with the mean figures and incidents in the foreground which stand out in wretched contrast with the gorgeous appendages they are supposed to enliven by their presence. The mountains of Cumberland fed his passion for waterfalls, and he always reproduces them in his pages with great force, as in "Thalaba:"—
Silent and calm the river rolled along,
And at the verge arrived
Of that fair garden, o'er a rocky bed
Toward the mountain base,
Still full and silent, held its even way.
But farther as they went its deepening sound
Louder and louder in the distance rose,
As if it forced its stream,
Struggling through crags along a narrow pass.
And lo! where raving o'er a hollow course
The ever-flowing flood
Foams in a thousand whirlpools; there adown
The perforated rock,
Plunge the whole waters; so precipitous,
So fathomless a fall,
That their earth-shaking roar came deaden'd up
Like subterranean thunders.
["Thalaba," b. vii., s. 6.]
The source of the Ganges in "Kehama" could not be passed by without a similar effort, though the researches of Captain Speke, which Southey seems to have anticipated, have somewhat dimmed the merit of the discovery:—
None hath seen its secret fountain;
But on the top of Men mountain,
Which rises o'er the hills of earth,
In light and clouds it hath its mortal birth.
Earth seems that pinnacle to rear
Sublime above this worldly sphere—
Its cradle, and its altar, and its throne
And there the new-born river lies
Outspread beneath its native skies,
As if it there would love to dwell
Alone and unapproachable.
Soon flowing forward and resign'd
To the will of the Creating Mind,
It springs at once, with sodden leap,
Down from the immeasurable steep.
From rock to rock, with shivering force rebounding,
The mighty cataract rushes — heaven arounding,
Like thunder, with the incessant roar resounding,
And Men's summit shaking with the sound.
Wide spreads the snowy foam-the sparkling spray
Dances aloft; and ever there at morning
The earliest sunbeams haste to wing their way,
With rainbow-wreaths the holy stream adorning.
And duly the adoring moon at night
Sheds her white glory there,
And in the watery air
Suspends her halo-crowns of silver light.
["Curse of Kehama," — Mount Meru, Book x., s. 3.]
The immolation of Arvalan's wives is also vividly depictured, and the contrast between the wild tumult and bacchanalian uproar of the juggernaut procession and the placid appearance of nature, well brought out:—
O silent Night, how have they startled thee
With the brazen trumpet's blare!
And thou, O moon, whose quiet light serene
Filleth wide heaven, and bathing hill and wood,
Spreads o'er the peaceful valley like a flood,
How have they dimm'd thee with the torches' glare,
Which round yon moving pageant flame and flare,
As the wild rout, with deafening song and shout,
Fling their long flashes out,
That, like infernal lightnings, fire the air.
[Ibid. Jaga-Naut, Book xiv, s. 4.]
Towards the close of his poem, Southey transports us to the world's end, where souls are described, in a manner which too painfully reminds us of Dante, waiting upon the distant shore, to be transported to the presence of Yamen, the great judge seated upon the confines of hell. Among these are wailing infants, young widows sacrificed at their husbands' funereal piles, and other "victims of offences not their own," whose
Innocent souls! thus set so early free
From sin and sorrow and mortality,
Their spotless spirits all-creating love
Received into its universal breast.
Yon blue serene above
Was their domain; clouds pillowed them to rest;
The elements on them like nurses tended,
And with their growth ethereal substance blended.
Less pure than these is that strange Indian bird,
Who never dips in earthly streams her bill,
But, when the sound of coming showers is heard,
Looks up, and from the clouds receives her fill.
Less pure the footless fowl of Heaven, that never
Rest upon earth, but on the wing for ever
Hovering o'er flowers, their fragrant food inhale,
Drink the descending dew upon its way,
And sleep aloft while floating on the gale.
["Curse of Kehema," — The World's End, Book xxi., s. 6.]
But all these beauties only refer to material description. Nor are there any passages purely spiritual in the whole poem, except the well-known lines,
They sin who tell us Love can die,
which gleams like a fluted pillar of light upon the cloudy atmosphere by which they are surrounded. I do not, therefore, think the "Curse of Kehama," which most of Southey's admirers regard as his chef-d'oeuvre, entitled to rank very high as an epic. The performance is unequal, the incidents unnatural and grotesque, the characters too monkish for Oriental fiction, and the beauties nearly all appertain to an inferior department of art, that of the lower order of imitation.
In "Thalaba," the beauties do not belong to a higher class than those in "Kehama," but the poem is free from much of the slipshod writing which disfigures the Indian poem. The absence of rhyme puts the poet on his mettle to express his conceptions in the most forcible manner. His commonplaces are never drest up in that sing-song which reminds us of pantomimes and theatrical burlesques, but are always couched in sonorous language. The plot is also better constructed. In the "Curse of Kehama," we frequently lose sight of the leading, in the subordinate, characters of the poem; but in the Arabian story, amid all the windings of the plot and pantomimic change of scenery, Thalaba is ever present, as the central figure to which all the incidents of the piece relates. The attachment between Thalaba and Oneiza is also more naturally developed than that between the Glendoveer and Kailyal, which begins in canting hypocrisy, and ends in cloudy mysticism. Though the poet, in the cottage of Moath, in the gardens of Aloadin, and in the sepulchre, threw away, as is his wont, three grand occasions for pourtraying earthly love in the principal stages of its existence — viz., its birth, its possession of the object, and the death-like eclipse which steeps the heart in the shadows of the grave when that object is withdrawn, — still he gives his reader just enough to make him understand that Thalaba and Oneiza each pine for the other, as that something without which life cannot be realized:
"Thee first, thee last, thee midst, thee without end."
It is for these reasons that, as a work of art, I place "Thalaba," as did Shelley and Southey himself; above all his other epics.
Whatever this poet saw he could group with multiform combinations into definite pictures, as pleasing and diversified as ever glowed in the imaginations of Poussin or Lorraine; but whatever was removed from the sphere of actuality was evidently above his reach. Where materialities end, there Southey's difficulties begin. Hence his magicians and his spirits, whether of the good or bad order, so far as their features are not limned from the models of Spenser, are wretched creations. He gets on as miserably in the lofty regions of Swerga, as in the abyssmal vaults of Domdaniel. But in "Thalaba," most of the incidents take place on the earth. We are only transplanted, on one or two of these occasions, beneath the roots of the ocean, to see the plots concocted which are to circumvent Thalaba among the wildest scenery that ever dazzled the imagination of man. The resemblance of the garden of Aloadin, in its general outline, to the opening scene in "Rasselas," is forgotten in the following picture;—
It was broad moonlight, and obscure or lost
The garden beauties lay,
But the great boundary rose, distinctly mark'd.
These were no little hills,
No sloping uplands lifting to the sun
Their vineyards, with fresh verdure, and the shade
Of ancient woods, courting the loiterer
To win the easy ascent: stone mountains these.
Desolate rock on rock,
The burthens of the earth,
Whose snowy summits met the morning beam,
When night was in the vale, whose feet were fix'd
In the world's foundations. Thalaba beheld
The heights precipitous,
Impending crags, rocks unascendible,
And summits that had tired the eagle's wing.
[Book vii., s. 4.]
But the poet is most at home in reproducing the enchantments of his own Cumberland scenery:—
In mazy windings o'er the vale
A thousand streamlets stray'd,
And in their endless course
Had intersected deep the stony soil,
With labyrinthine channels islanding
A thousand rocks, which seem'd
Amid the multitudinous waters there
Like clouds that freckle o'er the summer sky,
The blue ethereal ocean circling each,
And insulating all.
[Book vi., s. 10.]
The following little piece might suit an Academician for his next picture, though he could not give us the charming combination of liquid sounds which make the flowing waters splash music in our ears:—
The moonlight lay upon the rocks;
Their crags were visible,
The shade of jutting cliffs,
And where broad lichens whiten'd some smooth spot,
And where the ivy hung
Its flowing tresses down.
A little way within the cave
The moonlight fell, glossing the sable tide
That gush'd tumultuous out.
[Book v., s. 22.]
In the delight which Thalaba experienced in the gardens of Aloadin, it would be hard to say which sense was most gratified, if we leave touch out of the question. First, the sight—
Thalaba stood mute,
And passively received
The mingled joy which flowed on every sense.
Where'er his eye could reach
Fair structures, rainbow-hued, arose;
And rich pavilions through the opening woods
Gleam'd from their waving curtains sunny gold;
And winding through the verdant vale,
Went streams of liquid light
And fluted cypresses rear'd up
Their living obelisks;
And broad-leaved plane-trees in long colonnades
O'er-arched delightful walks,
Where round their trunks the thousand-tendrill'd vine
Wound up and hung the boughs with greener wreaths,
And clusters not their own.
.... Beside him teems the earth
With tulips, like the ruddy evening streak'd;
And here the lily hangs her head of snow;
And here amid her sable cup
Shines the red-eye spot, like one brightest star,
The solitary twinkler of the night;
And here the rose expands
Her paradise of leaves.
[Book vi., s. 20.]
Then the ear—
Far music and the distance-mellow'd song
From bowers of merriment;
The waterfall remote
The murmuring of the leafy groves;
The single nightingale
Perch'd in the rosier by, so richly toned,
That never from that most melodious bird,
Singing a love-song to his brooding mate,
Did Thracian shepherd by the grave
Of Orpheus hear a sweeter melody,
Though there the spirit of the sepulchre
All his own power infuse, to swell
The incense that he loves.
[Book vi., s. 21.]
And afterwards the smell—
And oh! what odours the voluptuous vale
Scatters from jasmine bowers,
From yon rose wilderness,
From cluster'd henna and from orange groves,
That with sweet perfume fill the breeze....
Such odours flow'd upon the world,
When at Mohammed's nuptials, word
Went forth in Heaven, to roll
The everlasting gates of Paradise
Back on their living hinges, that its gales
Might visit all below; the general bliss
Thrill'd every bosom, and the family
Of man, for once, partook one common joy.
[Book vi., s. 23.]
To this paradise, whose beauties are distinctly labelled and catalogued under three appropriate heads, Thalaba is admitted in the usual manner through gates which spontaneously open at the sound of a horn suspended, like our modern rustic villa bells, at the entrance. But these gates close in a manner which makes the reader imagine he hears the sound reverberating behind him, and that he has got in, as well as Thalaba himself:—
Like a long thunder-peal,
From rock to rock rebounding rung the blast,
The gates of iron, by no human arm
Unfolded, turning on their hinges slow,
Disclosed the passage of the rock.
He entered, and the iron gates fell to,
And with a clap like thunder closed him in.
[Book vi., s. 16.]
The cave of the giant Zohak, with the two serpents growing out of his shoulders, which supplied Macaulay with his apt illustration of the position of England with respect to the Irish and Scotch churches, whoever reads is not likely to forget. Indeed, the whole of the fifth and sixth books, being written in the same graphic style, will make "Thalaba" an acceptable book, when the "Curse of Kehama" is remembered with indifference, and "Madoc" or "Roderic" are forgotten.
But placing "Thalaba" as high as its splendid imagery and forcible diction will warrant, few of its beauties are of an ideal character. They strike the senses, but seldom reach the heart. No fiction can excite our emotions without verisimilitude. In "Thalaba," however, there is hardly a line that bears any likeness to nature. Contrast, with this epic, the unpretending tale of "Paraguay," the only poem in which Southey kindles genuine pathos. Here the incidents, which are of the simplest kind, the poet details in the simplest manner, but with traits of character so life-like, and with scenic colouring so real, that we feel as keen a sympathy for the Indian family, as if we had been acquainted with the group in their prairie solitude, and saw them wither like pent-up plants in the atmosphere of refinement. But in "Thalaba" the style is as gorgeous as the incidents are grand and complex. Yet we follow the hero through his course with the same unconcern as if he belonged to another sphere; while in the simpler story, the decline of Mooma and the visions, which bring down heaven to the bedside of Yeruti, impress the mind with all the appearance of truth. We cannot get it out of our head for a moment that the more pretentious effusion is only a wild freak of the imagination. The most credulous, therefore,, remain unaffected by the greatest perils of Thalaba. while the most callous find it difficult to restrain their emotion over the three graves dug by civilization for the denizens of the wilderness. The little poem is spiritual, and therefore mighty; but the great poem is so material that it becomes immaterial.
I do not know that the scenic beauties of "Thalaba," great as they are, or the construction of the plot, scientific or original as I must allow it to be, ought to go farther, were it not for his ballads, and his metrical tales, than to place Southey at the head of the fourth-class poets. Perfection of scene-painting, when accompanied with imperfect delineation of character, is, after all, not a very high accomplishment; and all Southey's personages had neither the general attributes of a class, nor the peculiar features of an individual. They are either too angelic or too demoniacal for flesh and blood in this world of ours, which generally blends great passions with great virtues, and wherein the best men never appear without some alloy of vice, or the worst, without some gleams of their ethereal nature breaking through the darkness of their crimes. It is this composite character, this halting to indulge two conflicting principles, this following the worse, while approving of the better course, which makes human character so interesting in the hands of the idealist, but which Southey, altogether, has lost sight of in his epics. Kailyal and Oneiga, as well as Thalaba and the Glendoveer, are only fit company for seraphs; Kehama, Arvalan, and Aloadin are only fit company for fiends. Madoc is an angel, David a butchering savage, and Roderic, after his overthrow, a faultless hermit. Natural scenery we have in all its luscious varieties, of lake, mountain, dell, pine forest, myriad-tongued ocean, bold headland, gushing fountain, or sweeping river, either reflecting or keeping each other in countenance with their quiet harmonies of light, form, and colour; but we seek in vain for the inhabitants of earth, among the angelic or haggard creatures whom the poet has summoned to people it from other spheres. But in his ballads we get among genuine men and women. The simplicity of the treatment is quite in keeping with that of the subject. Our curiosity is aroused at the commencement, and is kept alive to the end. They combine the perfection of the ballad style, that is, quiet irony intermingled with charming naivete, stirring incident, and deep pathos. Having small canvas for his picture, Southey at once seizes upon the salient features of the subject, and discards the fatal prolixity which mars most of his heavier productions. The "Maid of the Inn," the "Well of St. Keyne," the "Battle of Blenheim," the "Inchcape Rock," place Southey at the head of the ballad, while his "Madoc" and his "Roderic" place him very nearly at the tail of the epic poets of his country. Southey is the only artist we know whose merits may be said to vary in inverse proportion to the length of his performances. His "Joan of Arc" and "Thalaba" are the shortest and best of his epics. His "Tale of Paraguay" is shorter and better than either. But his ballads, which are shorter still, are the best of all.
The characteristics of the Lake School may be summed up in a very few words. They each took the love of nature and domesticity as imaged in Thomson and Cowper's natural style, as their basis. Upon this Wordsworth grafted a large amount of ideality, the habit of investing the simplest objects with a feeling of the infinite, and of analyzing with metaphysical subtilty the spiritual intercommunion between the human mind and the external universe. But Southey applied the Cowperian style to the production of historical poems, in which nothing further was sought than a series of dramatic pictures, with a vivid delineation of material nature as a background, except that in his oriental poems, Cowper is dismissed for Dr. Sayer. We are, however, in the bulk of Southey's pieces, never taken out of the actual world. The spiritualities sustaining, and giving, in fact, embodiment to external phenomena are never made apparent. Our attention is exclusively engrossed by the material lineaments of pictures selected, for the most part, from the commonest phases of humanity. This is the reason why people have all along, perhaps unconsciously to themselves, placed the later laureate very high up in the second division of poets, and his predecessor very low down in the third. I have no wish to disturb that arrangement, unless it be to advance Southey a grade or two in the list, and to rescue his oriental epics from that complete oblivion which appears to be fast settling over them. Coleridge stands midway between his two neighbours. In his earlier pieces he sought to unite the rustic graces of Cowper with the elegiac tenderness of Collins; in his later, with the mysticism of German metaphysics. We get, therefore, a large amount of ideality in his pieces. The material only serves to illustrate the spiritual, and never, as in Southey, to conceal it. We are constantly in his poetry hovering between two worlds. But his indolence, his desultory studies, his fluctuating resolves, his purposeless efforts, his disjointed pursuits and intemperate habits of conversationalizing, hindered him from carrying these advantages so far as to place his name even within the same division as Wordsworth.