1898 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Rowland E. Prothero, in Byron, Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 2:74-75n.



Robert Southey (1774-1843) published his Curse of Kehama in 1810. It formed a part of a series of heroic poems in which he intended to embody the chief mythologies of the world. In spite of Byron's adverse opinion, it contains magnificent passages, and disputes with Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), the claim to be the finest of his longer poems. Southey's literary activity was immense. He had already produced Joan of Arc (1796), Thalaba (1801), Madoc (1805), and many other works in prose and verse. At this time [1811] he was personally unknown to Byron, who had ridiculed his "annual strains." They met for the first time at Holland House, in September, 1813. (See Byron's letter to Moore, September 27, 1813, and Journal, p. 331.) The animosity between the two men belongs to a later date, and in its origin was partly political, partly personal. Southey, in early life, had been a republican and a unitarian, if not a deist. He collaborated with Coleridge in the Fall of Robespierre (1794), wrote a portion of the Conciones ad Populum (1795), which the Government considered seditious; and, according to Poole (Thomas Poole and his Friends, vol. i. chap. vi.), wavered "between Deism and Atheism." He became a champion of monarchical principles and of religious orthodoxy, and attacked the views, which he had once held and expressed in Wat Tyler (written in 1794, and piratically published in 1817), with the bitterness of a reactionary. He had also, as Byron believed, circulated, if not invented, a report that Byron and Shelley had formed "a league of incest" at Geneva, in 1816-17, with two "girls," Mary Godwin (Mrs. Shelley) and Jane Clairmont. Byron not only denied the charge, but retorted upon him, in his "Observations upon an Article in Blackwood's Magazine" (March 15, 1820), as the author of Wat Tyler and poet laureate, the man who "wrote treason and serves the King," the ex-pantisocrat who advocated "all things, including women, in common." Southey's Vision of Judgment, an apotheosis of George III., published in 1821, gave Byron a second provocation and a second opportunity, by speaking in the preface of his "Satanic spirit of pride and audacious "impiety." Byron again replied in prose; and Southey (January 5, 1820), in a letter to the London Courier, invited him to attack him in rhyme. In Byron's Vision of Judgment he found his invitation accepted, and himself pilloried in that tremendous satire. Southey overvalued his own narrative poetry. It is as a man, a prominent figure in literary history, a leader in the romantic revival, a master of prose, and the author of the best short biography in the English language — the Life of Nelson (1813) — that he lives at the present day. His name also deserves to be remembered with gratitude by all who have read the nursery classic of "The Three Bears." Byron parodies a stanza in Southey's "Queen Orraca and the Five Martyrs of Morocco" (Works, vol. vi. pp. 166-173)—

What news, O King Affonso,
What news of the Friars five?
Have they preached to the Miramamolin;
And are they still alive?

The blanks stand for Scott or Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lloyd, and Lamb(e), with the lines from New Morality in his mind—

Coleridge and Southey, Lloyd and Lamb and Co.,
Tune all your mystic harps to praise Lepaux.