1816 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Southey, Carmen Nuptiale; Edinburgh Review 26 (June 1816) 441-49.



A poet-laureate, we take it, is naturally a ridiculous person; and has scarcely any safe course to follow, in times like the present, but to bear his faculties with exceeding meekness, and to keep as much as possible in the shade. A stipendiary officer of the Royal household, bound to produce two lyrical compositions every year, in praise of his Majesty's person and government, is undoubtedly an object which it is difficult to contemplate with gravity; and which can only have been retained in existence, from that love of antique pomp and establishment which has embellished our Court with so many gold sticks and white rods, and such trains of beef-eaters and grooms of the stole — though it has submitted to the suppression of the more sprightly appendages of a king's fool, or a court jester. That the household poet should have survived the other wits of the establishment, can only be explained by the circumstance of his office being more easily converted into one of mere pomp and ceremony, and coming thus to afford an antient and well-sounding name for a moderate sinecure. For more than a century, accordingly, it has existed on this footing: and its duties, like those of the other personages to whom we have just alluded, have been discharged with a decorous gravity and unobtrusive quietness, which has provoked no derision, merely because it has attracted no notice.

The present possessor, however, appears to have other notions on the subject; and has very distinctly manifested his resolution not to rest satisfied with the salary, sherry, and safe obscurity of his predecessors, but to claim a real power and prerogative in the world of letters, in virtue of his title and appointment. Now, in this, we conceive, with all due humility, that there is a little mistake of fact, and a little error of judgment. The laurel which the King gives, we are credibly informed, has nothing at all in common with that which is bestowed by the Muses; and the Prince Regent's warrant is absolutely of no authority in the court of Apollo. If this be the case, however, it follows, that a poet-laureate has no sort of precedency among poets, — whatever may be his place among pages and clerks of the kitchen; — and that he has no more pretensions as an author, than if his appointment had been to the mastership of the staghounds. When he takes state upon him with the public, therefore, in consequence of his office, he really is guilty of as ludicrous a blunder as the worthy American Consul, in one of the Hanse towns, who painted the Roman "fasces" on the pannel of his buggy, and insisted upon calling his foot boy and clerk his "lictors." Except when he is in his official duty, therefore, the King's house-poet would do well to keep the nature of his office out of sight; and, when he is compelled to appear in it in public, should try to get through with the bsuiness quickly and quietly as possible. The brawney drayman who enacts the Champion of England in the Lord Mayor's show, is in some danger of being sneered at by the spectators, even when he paces along with the timidity and sobriety, that becomes his condition; but if he were to take it into his head to make serious boast of his prowess, and to call upon the city, bards to celebrate his heroic acts, the very apprentices could not restrain their laughter, — and "the humorous man" would have but small chance of finishing his part in peace.

Mr. Southey could not be ignorant of all this; and yet it appears that he could not have known it all. He must have been conscious, we think, of the ridicule attached to his office, and might have known that there were only two ways of counteracting it, — either by sinking the office altogether in his public appearances, or by writing such very good verses in the discharge of it, as might defy ridicule, and render neglect impossible. Instead of this, however, he has allowed himself to write rather worse than any Laureate before him, and has betaken himself to the luckless and vulgar expedient of endeavouring to face out the thing by an air of prodigious confidence and assumption: — and has had the usual fortune of such undertakers, by becoming only more conspicuously ridiculous. The badness of his official productions indeed is something really wonderful, — though not more so than the amazing self-complacency and self-praise with which they are given to the world. With the finest themes in the world for that sort of writing, they are the dullest, tamest, and most tedious things ever poor critic was condemned, or other people vainly invited, to read. They are a great deal more wearisome, and rather more unmeaning and unnatural, than the effusions of his predecessors Messrs Pye and Whitehead; and are moreover disfigured with the most abominable egotism, conceit and dogmatism, that we ever met with in any thing intended for the public eye. They are filled, indeed, with praises of the author himself, and his works, and his laurel, and his dispositions; notices of his various virtues and studies; puffs of the productions he is preparing for the press, and anticipations of the fame which he is to reap by their means, from a less ungrateful age; and all this delivered with such an oracular seriousness and assurance, that it is easy to see the worthy Laureate thinks himself entitled to share in the prerogatives of that royalty which he is bound to extol, and has resolved to make it

—his great example as it is his theme.

For, as sovereign Princes are permitted, in their manifestoes and proclamations, to speak of their own gracious pleasure and royal wisdom, without imputation of arrogance, so, our Laureate has persuaded himself that he may address the subject world in the same lofty strains, and that they will listen with as dutiful an awe to the authoritative exposition of his own genius and glory. What might have been the success of the experiment, the execution had been as masterly as the design is bold, we shall not trouble ourselves to conjecture; but the contrast between the greatness of the praise and the badness of the poetry in which it is conveyed, and to which it is partly applied, is abundantly decisive of its result in the present instance, as well as in all the others in which the ingenious author has adopted the same style. We took some notice of the Carmen Triumphale, which stood at the head of the series. But of the Odes which afterwards followed to the Prince Regent, and the Sovereigns and Generals who came to visit him, we had the charity to say nothing; and were willing indeed to hope, that the lamentable failure of that attempt might admonish the author, at least as effectually as any intimations of ours. Here, however, we have him again, with a Lay of the Laureate, and a Carmen Nuptiale, if possible still more boastful and more dull than any of his other celebrations. It is necessary, therefore, to bring the case once more before the Public, for the sake both of correction and example; and as the work is not likely to find many readers, and is of a tenor which would not be readily believed upon any general representation, we must now beg leave to give a faithful analysis of its different parts, with a few specimens of the taste and manner of its execution.

Its object is to commemorate the late auspicious marriage of the presumptive Heiress of the English crown with the young Prince of Saxe-Cobourg; and consists of a Proem, a Dream, and an Epilogue — with a L'envoy, and various annotations. The Proem, as was most fitting, is entirely devoted to the praise of the Laureate himself; and contains an account, which can not fail to be very interesting, both to his Royal auditors and to the world at large, of his early studies and attainments — the excellence of his genius — the nobleness of his views — and the happiness that has been the result of these precious gifts. Then there is mention made of his pleasure in being appointed Poet-Laureate, and of the rage and envy which that event excited in all the habitations of the malignant. This is naturally followed up by a full account of all his official productions, and some modest doubts whether his genius is not too heroic and pathetic for the composition of an Epithalamium, — which doubts, how ever, are speedily and pleasingly resolved by the recollection, that as Spenser made a hymn on his own marriage, so, the can be nothing improper in Mr. Southey doing as much on of the Princess Charlotte. This is the general argument of Proem. But the reader must know a little more of the details. In his early youth, the ingenious author says he aspired to the fame of a poet; and then Fancy came to him, and showed him the glories of his future career, addressing him in these encouraging words—

Thou whom rich Nature at thy happy birth
Blest in her bounty with the largest dower
That Heaven indulges to a child of earth!

Being folly persuaded of the truth of her statements, we have then the satisfaction of learning that he has lived a very happy life; and that, though time has made his hair a little grey, if has only matured his understanding; and that he is still as habitually cheerful as when he was a boy. He then proceeds to inform us, that he sometimes does a little in poetry still; but that, of late years, lie spends most of his time in writing histories — from which he has no doubt that he will one day or another acquire great reputation.

Thus in the ages which are past I live,

And those which are to come my sure reward will give.

Part of his reward, indeed, he says he has got already, — for all the good and wise love and admire him; and moreover,

That green wreath which decks the Bard when dead,
That laureate garland crowns my living head.

He then goes on to tell, that he has hitherto worn the said laurel with great honour, and has by no means made a sinecure of the situation — having indited a great variety of official odes since his appointment, the subjects and merits of which are accordingly explained in several sounding stanzas. The enumeration is closed with this strain of ingenuous modesty.

Such strains beseemed me well. But how shall I
To hymeneal numbers tune the string, &c.
Fitter for me the lofty strain severe,
That calls for vengeance for mankind opprest;
Fitter the songs that youth may love to hear. &c. &c.

However, he bethinks him of Spenser, as we have already mentioned; and comforts himself after this fashion—

And hast not thou, my Soul, a solemn theme

I said — and mused until I fell into a dream.

We come next, of course, to the Dream; and nothing more stupid or heavy, we will venture to say, ever arose out of sleep, or tended to sleep again. The unhappy Laureate, it seems, just saw, upon shutting his eyes, what he might have seen as well if he had been able to keep them open — a great crowd of people and coaches in the street, with marriage favours in their bosoms; church bells ringing merrily, and feux-de-joie firing in all directions. Eftsoons, says the dreaming poet, I came to a great door, where there were guards placed to keep off the mob, but when they saw my Laurel crown, they made way for me, and let me in!—

But I had entrance through that guarded door,
In honour to the Laureate crown I wore.

When he gets in, he finds himself in a large hall, decorated with trophies, and pictures, and statues, commemorating the triumphs of British valour, from Aboukir to Waterloo. The room, moreover, was filled with a great number of ladies and gentlemen very finely dressed; and in two chairs, near the top, were seated the Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold. Hitherto, certainly, all is sufficiently plain and probable; — nor can the Muse who dictated this to the slumbering Laureate he accused of any very extravagant or profuse invention. We come now, however, to allegory and learning in abundance. In the first place, we are told, with infinite regard to the probability as well as the novelty of the fiction, that in this drawing-room there were two great lions couching at the feet of the Royal Pair; — the Prince's being very lean and in poor condition, with the hair rubbed off his neck as if from a heavy collar — and the Princess's in full vigour, with a bushy mane, and littered with torn French flags. Then there were two heavenly figures stationed on each side of the throne, one called Honour, and the other Faith; — so very like each other, that it was impossible not to suppose them brother and sister. It turns out, however, that they were only second cousins; or so at least we interpret the following precious piece of theogony.

Akin they were. — yet not as thus it seemed,
For he of VALOUR was the eldest son,
From Arete in happy union sprung.
But her to Phronis Eusebeia bore,
She whom her mother Dice sent to earth;
What marvel then if thus their features wore
Resemblant lineaments of kindred birth?
Dice being child of Him who rules above,
VALOUR his earth-born son; so both derived from Jove. p. 29.

This, we think, is delicious; but there is still more goodly stuff toward. The two heavenly cousins stand still without doing any thing; but then there is a sound of sweet music, and a whole "heavenly company" appear, led on by a majestic female, whom we discover, by the emblems on our halfpence, to be no less a person than Britannia, who advances and addresses a long discourse of flattery and admonition to the Royal bride; which, for the most part, is as dull and commonplace as might be expected from the occasion; though there are some passages in which the author has reconciled his gratitude to his Patron, and his monitory duty to his Daughter, with singular spirit and delicacy. After enjoining n to her the observance of al public duties, and the cultivation of all domestic virtues, Britannia is made to sum up the whole sermon in this emphatic precept—

Look to thy Sire, and in his steady way
—learn thou to tread.

Now, considering that Mr. Southey was at all events incapable of sacrificing truth to Court favour, it cannot but be regarded as a rare felicity in his subject, that he could thus select a pattern of private purity and public honour in the person of the actual Sovereign, without incurring the least suspicion either of base adulation or lax morality.

When Britannia has delivered her lecture, she is succeeded by another venerable personage, whose lineage and office are thus loftily described by the sleeping Laureate.

Of Kronos and the Nymph Mnemosyne
He sprung, on either side a birth divine;
Thus to the Olympian Gods allied was he,
And brother to the sacred Sisters nine.
They called him Praxis in the Olympian tongue,
But here on earth EXPERIENCE was his name. p. 35.

This Praxis, it seems, is a bookmaker by profession, like the Laureate himself; and contents himself; accordingly, with depositing a presentation copy of his work before the Royal Pair, and only pronouncing, after the manner of the said Laureate, a long eulogium on its beauty and use.

To this succeeds a most clumsy apparition of "the Angel of the Church of England," attended by a considerable party of Saints and Martyrs, — who also pays his compliments to the Princess, and entreats her, in plain and distinct terms, to take care of the English Church, and preserve it from decay; — for which purpose, he is pleased to add, Providence had on former occasions, and

In perilous times, provided female means,
Blessing it beneath the rule of pious Queens.

It is another proof of Mr. Southey's singular liberality, and disdain of courtly prejudices, that he has been at pains, at such a moment as the present, to profess his utter abhorrence and detestation of the Catholic religion, and made his Lutheran angel warn the young Princess against any toleration of its monstrous abominations. "Think not," says he—

Think not that lapse of ages shall abate
The inveterate malice of that Harlot old. &c.
For her fierce Beast, whose names are Blasphemy,
The same that was, is still, and still must be.

After the Church party have taken their leaves, another celestial monitor advances, who, though he is not directly named by the author, appears very plainly by his discourse to be none other than the angel of the British School Society. He makes a still better speech than his brother of the Church of England, and recommends the interests of education to the Royal Pair, in several very moving, though rather tedious stanzas, — which terminate in the following harmonious distich—

The heart of man is rich in all good seeds;

Neglected, it is choked with tares and noxious weeds.—

We are next recreated with the presentation of Hope and Charity, who seem upon this occasion to sustain the character of the angels of the Missionary and Bible Societies, and exhort the Princess to spare no pains for the conversion of the Heathen. Speranza is the prolocutor, and ends her address, by repeating these two lines in small capitals.

THY KINGDOM COME! THY WILL RE DONE, O LORD!

AND BE THY HOLY NAME THROUGH ALL THE WORLD ADORED!

—at which words the roof of the drawing-room opens, and a bright Cross is seen far up in the sky. The poet shuts his eyes on the splendour; and, on opening them again, sees the last of the allegorical company, — a dim, dreary looking figure, but with "divinest beauty in his awful face." He makes his compliment and speech like the rest; and the Dream ends with his last words, in which he announces to the bridal party—

My name is DEATH — the last best friend am I.

The Epilogue need not detain us very long. — It consists almost entirely of an apology for, or rather a zealous encomium on the flat stupidities of that part we have now hastily gone over. The poet ingeniously supposes that some frivolous reader may say

Are these fit strains for Royal ears to hear?

and sets himself accordingly to show that they are the fittest and the worthiest, and the most precious that could possibly have been employed on the occasion. We have not patience to go over the dull prosing of this panegyric on his own genius and judgment. He has touched indeed, he confesses, upon awful subjects—

Yet surely are they such as, viewed aright,
Contentment to thy better mind may bring.

Lighter themes, he candidly admits, might have been more amusing — but then their delights would soon wither like spring flowers; — whereas his sublime strains are evergreens, and moreover of sovereign virtue

Yea, while the Poet's name is doomed to live,
So long this garland shall its fragrance give.

—and so on in the same vein of high poetry and lowly modesty, through some dozen stanzas. — The work ends with one entitled, "L'Envoy" — which breathes the very soul of silliness and self-complacency.

Go, little Book, from this my solitude,
I cast thee on the waters: . . go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The world will find thee after many days.
Be it with thee according to thy worth: . .
Go, little Book! in faith I send thee forth. p. 69.

It is impossible to feel any serious or general contempt for a person of Mr. Southey's genius; — and, in reviewing his other works, we hope we have shown a proper sense of his many merits and accomplishments. But his Laureate odes are utterly and intolerably bad; and, if he had never written any thing else, must have ranked him below Colley Cibber in genius, and above him in conceit and presumption. We have no toleration for this sort of perversity, or prostitution of great gifts; and do not think it necessary to qualify the expression of opinions which we have formed with as much positiveness as deliberation. — We earnestly wish he would resign his livery laurel to Lord Thurlow, and write no more odes on Court galas. We can assure him too, most sincerely, that this wish is not dictated in any degree by envy, or any other hostile or selfish feeling. We are ourselves, it is but too well known, altogether without pretensions to that high office — and really see no great charms either in the alary or the connexion — and, for the glory of writing such verses as we have now been reviewing, we do not believe that there is a scribbler in the kingdom so vile as to think it a thing to be coveted.