1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Francis Jeffrey?, Review of Southey, Carmen Triumphale; Edinburgh Review 22 (January 1814) 447-54.



We have always maintained that the writings of Mr. Southey were remarkable, not merely for affectation and bad taste, but for poetical genius of considerable magnitude. Our readers, we are persuaded, will do us the justice to allow, that we have laboured long and zealously to convince them of this truth; and indeed there are not many things upon which we have been used to value ourselves more, than the firmness with which we have always stood ready to assert it, at the point of our pens, against all opposers. We cannot help owing him a little grudge, therefore, for putting us so unmercifully in the wrong, as he has done by this publication. As to the matter of taste and affectation, indeed, it has placed our opinion upon more unquestionable grounds than it ever stood on before; but for genius and poetry, we really do not know how to name their names, in the face of such a strange farrago of bad psalmody and stupid newspapers — of such a base imitation of Sternhold and the Daily Advertiser, as now lies before us.

This marvellous falling off of Mr. Southey, we are most willing to ascribe to the benumbing influence of that chaplet of Bays, with which the favour of the Prince Regent has recently adorned his brows. The laurel is well known to have the power of warding off the stroke of lightning from the heads which it covers; and we have long suspected it to possess the analogous quality of rendering them impervious to that subtler fluid, whatever it may be, in which poetical inspiration consists. Nothing else, we conceive, can account for the singular fact, that the odes of our poets laureat are invariably the dullest performances of the year; and, in general, go many degrees beyond any thing that the very same authors have been known to produce in that sort, before or after the period of their titular supremacy. We laud The Gods, therefore, for the narrow escape which our celebrated countryman Mr. Scott is said to have had from this perilous honour — though we think it would have taken more than one branch of laurel to have "subdued him to this lowness."

There is nothing unprecedented, we readily admit, in this misadventure of Mr. Southey's. On the contrary, it is so much a thing of course — for the Poet Laurent to make himself ridiculous, that we should scarcely have thought it worth while to record the event, had there not been something in the times and the subject that seemed, upon this occasion, to give him a chance of redemption; and to excite expectations, the disappointment of which it is not easy to bear in silence. After all, we believe, if Mr. Southey had been contented with getting up an ode of the ordinary length, and, after having it set to music, had printed it, in a quiet way, in the newspapers and the Annual Registers, we should have let him slide down the smooth descent to oblivion, without any help or hindrance of ours; and seen his labours gathered to those of the Shadwells and Cibbers, and his other great predecessors, with as little sensation as on any former occasion. But when the Annual Ode is swelled to nineteen strophes, garnished with an ostentatious title, and printed in a four shilling quarto, with mottoes, notes, and other accompaniments of pretension, the case assumes a more serious aspect, and seems to call imperiously for our interposition.

The subject is the grand one of the approaching liberation of Europe from the tremendous thraldom of France; and noble and inspiring as it is, it is treated by the laureat bard with such inconceivable tameness and sterility, that we have not been able to discover one striking thought, or glowing phrase — one trait of feeling, or spark oft fancy, — nay not even one bold image, or lofty expression, in the whole compass of his performance. To compensate for the want of all these, he shouts vehemently, as is his manner, seven several times, "Glory to God Deliverance to mankind!" — and then proceeds to tell the old story of the war in the Peninsula, — not merely for the last year, which all that comes fairly within the province of a New-year poet — the five last campaigns; — and then, having spent fifteen strophes in praising "the Wellesley," as he affectedly calls Lord Wellington, and abusing the French in the dullest style, and meanest diction of a newspapers, he proceeds to say a word or two on the exploits of the Northern Princes, and, especially of the king of Prussia, whom he ingeniously designates by the name of "the Brandenberg." He them dutifully congratulates Hanover on the restoration of its old illustrious line — speaks a word the injured Hollanders — and ends with an anticipation of restoration and peace.

We are very well aware, that the mere argument or subject of an ode can give but little idea of its merits; and accordingly, it is more to the meanness of Mr. Southey's materials, and the poorness of his execution, than to the faults of his general plan, that our objections are directed. The reader, however, shall now judge for himself of their fairness. We have said, that instead of kindling, with his mighty theme, to a true lyrical sublimity and rapture, he has handled it in the trite and creeping style of a dull daily paper; and we appeal to any competent judge of these matters, whether he would ever have suspected that a poet had got in among that meritorious race of journalists, if the dullest of them all had taken a review of the Spanish war in such a sentence as the following.

"The heroic Spaniard first awoke from his trance. He broke his chains; and casting the treacherous yoke off his neck, he called on England, his generous enemy. For he knew well, that wherever wise policy prevailed, or brave despair, the succours of Britain would flow, and her arm be present. Then, too, regenerated Portugal displayed her antient virtue, all-too-long dormant; and rising against intolerable wrong, that faithful nation called in her distress upon England, her old ally. Her old ally obeyed the call, and her faithful friendship was well-repaid."

The most suspicious reader, we believe, could detect no indication of poetry in such a passage as this; and yet it is, "literatim et verbatim," one of Mr. Southy's finest stanzas — divested merely of the rhyme, and the slight semblance of metre with which it is adorned in the original;— where it stands as follows.

First from his trance the heroic Spaniard woke;
His chains he broke,
And casting off his neck the treacherous yoke,
He call'd on England, on his generous foe:
For well he knew that wheresoe'er
Wise policy prevailed, or brave despair,
Thither would Brtain's succours flow,
Her arm be present there.
Then too regenerate Portugal display'd
Her ancient virtue, dormant all-too-long.
Rising against intolerable wrong,
On England, on her old ally for aid
The faithful nation call'd in her distress
And well that old ally the call obey'd,
Well was her faithful friendship then repaid. p. 8.

We may now try another passage by the same test. Is there any thing of the imagery or diction of poetry — any glittering fragments even, or scattered brilliancy, in. the following statement?

"In the mean time Spain endured the contest, patient of loss, and profuse of life; and although she saw her cities conquered, her armies scattered in the field, and her strongest bulwarks fallen, she viewed the danger, without dismay; knowing, that nothing could ever appal the fortitude of a Spaniard."

This, however, is but a slight transposition of the following stanza.

Patient of loss, profuse of life,
Meantime had Spain endured the strife;
And tho' she saw her cities yield,
Her armies scatter'd in the field,
Her strongest bulwarks fall,
The danger undismay'd she view'd,
Knowing that nought could e'er appal
The Spaniards' fortitude. p. 9, 10.

We may go on to the passage immediately following; which, divested of its metre, would run thus.

"Therefore no thoughts of fear debased her judgment or disgraced her acts — and, resigned to every ill, but not to shame, she bore all sufferings and calamities — and bade the people call to mind their heroes of days of yore, St. Pelayo and the Campeador," &c. &c.

And then, after some more about the Moors, the poet proceeds—

"The Moor had reared his haughty crest, fairly, and professing a hostile aim, an open and honourable foe; — but the treacherous Frenchman came as a friend, and Spain received him as a guest. — Think what your fathers were, she cried — think what you yourselves are, tried in sufferings — and think of what your sons must be, freemen or slaves as you make them."

And a little after—

"Heaven too, to whom the Spaniards looked for aid, bestowed a spirit equal to the time and they gloriously paid the debt they owed to their valiant ancestors, and gloriously maintained their childrens' proud inheritance against the power of France. No defeat could move their steady purpose — no horrors abate their constant mind. Hope had its source and resting place above; and they, resigned to the loss of every thing on earth, suffered, to save their country and mankind."

Now, these are not malignant paraphrases or translations, where mean words are insidiously substituted for noble ones, and a distorted shadow of the original presented, robbed of all its native grace and colouring. They are, with scarcely any exception, the very words of Mr. Southey, — and inconceivably little altered, even in their collocation; — as the reader may see by comparing them with the original lines; which we subjoin.

Therefore no thought of fear debased
Her judgment, nor her acts disgraced.
To every ill, but not to shame resign'd,
All sufferings, all calamities she bore.
She bade the people call to mind
Their heroes of the days of yore,
Pelayo and the Campeador. p. 10.

For fairly, and with hostile aim profest,
The Moor had rear'd his haughty crest;
An open, honourable foe;
But as a friend the treacherous Frenchman came,
And Spain receiv'd him as a guest.
Think what your fathers were! she cried;
Think what ye are, in sufferings tried,
And think of what your sons must be—
Even as ye make them — slaves or free! p. 11.

Heaven too, to whom the Spaniards look'd for aid,
A spirit equal to the hour bestow'd;
And gloriously the debt they paid,
Which to their valiant ancestors they ow'd,
And gloriously against the power of France,
Maintain'd their children's proud inheritance.
Their steady purpose no defeat could move,
No horrors could abate their constant mind
Hope had its source and resting-place above,
And they, to loss of all on earth resign'd,
Suffered, to save their country and mankind. p. 12.

This is enough — and more than enough we believe; — unless indeed we were to quote the lofty invocation to Germany, in the, emphatic words, "Up Germany!" — and the dignified picture of that mighty nation, "breaking its chains upon its oppressor's head" — or the truly lyrical epithet of "upstart," applied with so much originality to Bonaparte — or that of "ruffian" to Massena.

The notes are chiefly filled with abuse of the Edinburgh Review; and were no doubt intended to make us very angry, and very ridiculous. If they have not effected the latter purpose, however, any better than the first, we are afraid the learned author will be held to have failed almost as much in his prose as in his verse, on the present occasion. We have on former occasions told Mr. Southey the faults of his poetry with the freedom which our profession required — and with more lavish praise, of its merits than it has ever drawn from any other quarter: — and these our good services have given him such an antipathy to us and to our calling, that he has called us "asses" in his Omniana; and has added, in one of the present notes, that nothing absurd, mischievous, or, false, can excite surprise in our writings. Nay, he has actually taken the pains to pore over our political speculations for five years back, and to rake out four, or five insulated passages, the tenor of which he thinks has been contradicted by subsequent events, — and these, with a reasonable allowance of derision and reviling he has now condescended to print by way of annotation and accompaniment to a triumphal hymn upon the deliverance of the world from French oppression, and the general regeneration of human society. Poor Mr. Southey! We should really be extremely flattered by the distinction with which he has thus treated us, if we did not feel sensibly hurt at the pain we seem unintentionally to have inflicted, as well as offended in our critical capacity with, the gross incongruity of bringing in those little traits of personal irritation, as a sequel to the lofty themes in which the poet was employed, and to which it was natural to think that he had given up all his faculties. For our own parts, when we are seriously occupied with the destinies of Europe, or of mankind, we should think very contemptibly of ourselves, if we could permit the recollection of our differences with Mr. Southey to intrude either into our writings or our thoughts.

As for the supposed errors in our political anticipations, which the incredible industry of the Laureat has thus gleaned from some of our old Numbers, we certainly do not propose in this place either to vindicate or explain them. That the course of events has not corresponded in all respects with what we at one time considered as probable, is no more, we suppose,, than may be said of every one fallible being who has dealt in the hazardous trade of political prediction; and seems to be very unluckily selected as a ground of reproach, at a moment when the whole world is filled with admiration and astonishment at the strange, and unexpected events which have recently crowded upon its observation. With regard to Spain, however — and the degree of praise to which that nation is entitled for its efforts against its oppressors, we unquestionably retain our original opinion. No country, we are persuaded, ever did so little for itself, under circumstances of such excitement and encouragement. It, has been liberated entirely by British valour and British enterprize; and though its liberation, by any means, is a worthy subject of joy and exultation, it is impossible to reflect, without regret, that a population of more than twelve millions of brave, zealous, and idle persons, has been found so unavailable for its own defence, that it cannot be trusted even to bar the return of its baffled and vanquished invaders whom our arms have expelled. Had it not been for this unfortunate, and, to us, unaccountable inefficiency of the Spanish force, the army of Lord Wellington might long ere this have joined the Allies in front of Paris, and shared the honours of a contest that would then have been both less sanguinary and less doubtful. We have no doubt of the hatred which the Spaniards bear to the French — nor of their individual bravery; and agree with Mr. Southey, and sill the world, in admiring the heroic defence which was made by two of their towns against the fearful force of their besiegers; but it cannot be disguised, that, as a nation, they have made no efforts at all answerable to the occasion that called for them: And though Spain has been the theatre of great and glorious exploits against the common foe, the Spaniards have in general been found in the place, not of actors, but spectators.

There seems to us, therefore, to be something quite unreasonable in the vehement admiration which Mr. Southey has always expressed for them; and which has led him, on the present occasion, to devote nine tenths of a New Year's Ode, for which he had most abundant materials in other quarters, to a dull repetition of events that happened among them several years ago. This excessive eagerness and partiality has to us, we will confess, something of a ludicrous character; and appears so entirely without any reasonable cause, that we have sometimes been tempted to ascribe it to two very, slight and rather unsatisfactory motives; — one, the circumstance of Mr. Southey having been accidentally for a few months in that country, in the early part of his life; — and the other, our having unluckily presumed to speak rather dispraisingly and despondingly of a race that had been honoured by such a visit. The last, however, we ought to add, is a position which we should never have had the vanity to make, had it not been for the proofs afforded in this performance, of the importance he ascribes to our opinions, and their visible effect on his temper.

On the whole, we cannot congratulate Mr. Southey on Carmen Triumphale; — and, high as our expectations were, when we heard that he had "forsworn thin potations, and addicted himself to sack," we are now satisfied that this diet does not at all agree with his poetical temperament; and advise him to shake off his foolish bays, and return to his fresh water a speedily as possible. We think very favourably of his abilities, when his head is clear, and divested of these incumbrances; and promise ourselves much and frequent gratification from the sober use of his pen. We have read his spirited and honest Life of Nelson with very great pleasure; and only hesitate about making it the subject of a review, because we believe it to be already almost as popular as it would be our object to make it. We are delighted also to see that he has announced a Dramatic Poem; which we earnestly hope was written before he came to his Laurel and Butt of Sherry.