Wat Tyler, a Dramatic Poem. 12mo. pp. 70. London, 1817.
A Letter to William Smith, Esq. M.P., from Robert Southey, Esq. 8vo. pp. 45. London, 1817.
When we first saw this extraordinary Drama, with its significant mottoes and advertisements, we set it down, in our provincial innocence, as a wicked and extravagant parody of the worthy Laureate's earlier manner — maliciously contrasted, as to the subject, with the loyal sublimity of his late official Lyrics: — For though we knew well enough that the said worthy and consistent person had been a bit of a Jacobin in his youth — had coquetted in verse with Mary Woolstoncroft and the ghost of Madam Roland, — and extolled our Regicides at home, and deplored the execution of Brissot as the damning sin of the French Revolution; — nay, though we knew that the first of his six Epics had been written for the purpose of reviling the war we were then carrying on against the holy Republic, and the detestable policy of "the Dark Vizier," as he ingeniously termed Mr. Pitt, — we really never imagined that he could, at any time of his life, have been capable of producing anything at once so insane and so silly as the piece now before us.
Even when we learned, from the perusal of certain judicial proceedings, that the work had been actually acknowledged by the excellent Laureate, we hesitated about making it the subject of a review. It was not clear to us that the manuscript had been very handsomely come by; — and the poor man, we fancied — poor provincial innocents again! — must be so confounded and ashamed of himself, that we had not the heart to aggravate his awkward pain by any public notice of the transaction. The perusal of some late numbers of the Quarterly Review, however, somewhat shook this resolution of forbearance; — and that of the second publication, of which we have prefixed the title, served altogether to change it. In that exquisite performance, we find, not only that Mr. Southey is not at all ashamed of having written Wat Tyler, — but that he is exceedingly proud of it, — and that he actually regards it as one of his most generous and ingenious productions. If there be any defect, indeed, in his moral constitution — which to be sure it is very presumptuous to suppose — we imagine it consists in something quite opposite to an excessive tendency to be ashamed of anything which he does, or which befals him; — and accordingly, we must take the liberty to say, at once, that a more bloated mass of self-conceit, absurdity and insolence, never fell under our view, than the Letter which he has here given to the public; and that there is something so irresistibly ludicrous in the magnificent tone which he assumes, when contrasted with the occasion of his present appearance, that, compassionable as the case otherwise is, it is not easy to conceive anything much more diverting than the two pieces which we now venture to recommend to the attention of our readers. The Dramatic Poem is the text — and must have the precedence; but the author's commentary is, in our poor judgment, the most poetical and dramatic of the two, and will require rather more notice.
Of the history of the poem, we do not know that we can speak with perfect accuracy. It was written, it seems, in the year 1794, when Mr. Southey was about twenty-one years of age; and was, at the time, intended by him for publication. But the person into whose hands it was put, did not then chuse to venture on that measure; and it seems to have been thrown aside and neglected, till it came, we really do not at all know by what means, into the possession of some one who seems to have admired Mr. Southey's generous opinions rather more than his prudent ones, — and who, accordingly, lately gave it to the world, principally, as we imagine, with the view of making idle people merry by the strange contrast which they exhibited, — and partly, perhaps, with the hope of diminishing the authority of the Laureate's loyal argumentations, by this exhibition of his former extravagance on the other side. On its first appearance, its authenticity was a good deal suspected, and stoutly denied by the author's politic employers; and at this period, we understand, the great object was to get it suppressed, without the necessity of any acknowledgment. But, upon reference to counsel learned in the law, it was unfortunately discovered, that no injunction against the sale could be applied for, unless by a person distinctly stating himself as the author or proprietor. This, it must be confessed, was rather a distressing dilemma; and accordingly produced a pause of some weeks, if we are not misinformed, in the author's operations. During all this time, however, the belief in its authenticity became more prevalent; and at last the Laureate, seeing be could not longer maintain his incognito, and being, no doubt, excessively scandalized at the great mischief which was thus wrought in his name, came boldly forward, acknowledged the work, and craved an injunction against its further publication. Here, however, he was met by another very provoking obstacle. The work, it was impudently contended by the publishers, was manifestly of a seditious and wicked tendency; and as no author could have any legal or beneficial interest in such a performance, so the Laureate had no right to intermeddle with the sale of it. Upon this ground, accordingly, the Lord Chancellor refused the injunction; — and as the Attorney-General has not yet been prevailed upon to prosecute it as a seditious libel, the sale has gone on ever since without obstruction; and the only result of Mr. Southey's interference has been, to place it beyond all dispute among his acknowledged works.
The work itself may be very soon despatched. It is a rude and feeble attempt to dramatize the story of the well-known popular insurrection under Wat Tyler, in the reign of Richard II. The writing throughout is inconceivably poor and childish; and the whole scenes and characters represented without the least force, spirit, or ingenuity. A more pitiful piece of puling indeed was never indited by a young girl at a boarding-school; — nor is there anything whatever to entitle it to a moment's attention, but the incredible extravagance of the doctrines, which it inculcates with all the tranquillity of the most consummate arrogance and delightful self-complacency. The object of the author is to show, not only that kings and courts are oppressive and domineering, — but that all distinctions of rank are ridiculous, — and all exclusive use of property a mere robbery and abomination. Kings, nobles, and landlords, therefore, ought instantly to be put down; and all the men, women and children in the country, put forthwith in possession of their share of property and sovereignty. The lamentable weakness of the reasonings by which these considerable innovations are recommended, and the miserable tameness and baldness of the composition, struck us, at first, as being in singular contrast with the boldness of the conception; — but, upon reflection, we believe that the combination is quite natural, — both having their root in that utter debility of the understanding, of which habitual lowness and occasional extravagance are equally symptomatic. A very few specimens, taken at random, as the book opens, will abundantly justify our opinion. Hob Carter and Wat are discoursing on politics in the first act, when Wat pathetically observes—
Hob — I have only six groats in the world,
And they must soon by law be taken from me! p. 5.
Hob manfully rejoins—
Curse on these taxes — one succeeds another—
Our ministers — panders of a king's will—
Drain all our wealth away — waste it in revels, &c. p. 5 ,6.
Wat then elegantly proceeds in the same weighty and original style—
What matters me who wears the crown of France?
Whether a Richard or a Charles possess it?
They reap the glory — they enjoy the spoil—
We pay — we bleed! — The sun would shine as cheerly,
The rains of heaven as seasonably fall,
Though neither of these royal pests existed.
Hob. Nay — as for that, we poor men should fare better;
No legal robbers then should force away
The hard-earn'd wages of our honest toil.
The Parliament for ever cries, "More money,
The service of the state demands more money."
Just heaven! of what service is the state p. 6, 7.
Afterwards, Wat thus powerfully exhorts his neighbours to join him in the insurrection.
Think of the insults, wrongs, and contumelies,
Ye bear from your proud lords — that your hard toil
Manures their fertile fields — you plough the earth,
You sow the corn, you reap the ripen'd harvest,—
They riot on the produce! — that, like beasts,
They sell you with their land — claim all the fruits
Which the kindly earth produces as their own.
The privilege, forsooth, of noble birth! p. 21, 22.
Then the miseries of low birth are commemorated in the following beautiful verses—
Long, long labour, little rest,
Still to toil to be oppress'd;
Drain'd by taxes of his store,
Punish'd next for being poor:
This is the poor wretch's lot,
Born within the straw-roof'd cot.
When Adam delv'd and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman? p. 23, 24.
But the lofty vein of the piece is reserved for John Ball the priest, who, when complimented by the carter and the rest of them, replies with a noble modesty—
My brethren, I am plain John Ball, — your friend,
and then delivers an harangue, the burden of which is still, that it is quite monstrous and intolerable that the poor labourers should plough the fields, and the landlord take the sheaves to himself. The conclusion is much in the peculiar emphatic vein which distinguishes the Laureate odes of the same eminent author.
There is enough for all; but your proud baron
Stands up, and, arrogant of strength, exclaims,
"I am a lord — by nature, I am noble:
These fields are mine, for I was born to them,
I was born in the castle — you, poor wretches,
Whelp'd in the cottage, are by birth my slaves,"
Almighty God! such blasphemies are utter'd!
Almighty God! such blasphemies believ'd! p. 29,30.
By and by the King, and an Archbishop, and a Chief-Justice, are brought in, to display a scene of the most naked, silly, and incredible cowardice, perjury and falsehood; — and they and their offices are held up to ridicule and hatred, with all the effect that the exceeding feebleness of the author's genius can produce. In order to bring the royal style and dignity into contempt, this learned antiquary and powerful satirist thus repeats it—
Richard the Second, by the grace of God,
Of England, Ireland, France, and Scotland, King,
"And of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed!"
—which excellent joke is again repeated in the recitation of the royal charter. — At the parley, this perjured Monarch is made to say—
You should have tried
By milder means — petition'd at the throne—
The throne will always listen to petitions. p. 42.
To which the valiant insurgent thus nobly answers—
Petitioning for pity is most weak,
The Sovereign People ought to demand justice!—
Afterwards, John Ball tells the wicked courtiers, that it is they, and not he, that are guilty of treason — because that they "Rebel against the People's Sovereignty." And one of his pupils very emphatically exclaims—
Why are not all these empty ranks abolish'd—
King, Slave, and Lord, "ennobled into Man?"
Are we not all equal?
By and by the Archbishop is made to urge the King to perjure himself — and the Chief-Justice makes jokes on the prostitution of the law. John Ball is finally brought to trial, where, with heroic constancy, he maintains
That all mankind as brethren must be equal;
That privileg'd orders of society
Are evil and oppressive; that the right
Of property is a juggle to deceive
The poor whom you oppress. p. 64.
and, upon this confession, he is forthwith sentenced by Sir John Tresilian, in the following words — which, we have no doubt, Mr. Southey thought admirably calculated to expose the mock-majesty of courts of justice, and to inflame the popular indignation against the cruel punishments which they sometimes award—
John Ball, whereas you are accused before us
Of stirring up the people to rebellion,
And preaching to them strange and dangerous doctrines;
And whereas your behaviour to the court
Has been most insolent and contumacious;
Insulting Majesty: — And since you have pleaded
Guilty to all these charges; I condemn you
To death: You shall be hanged by the neck,
Put not till you are dead — your bowels open'd—
Your heart torn out and burnt before your face—
Your traitorous head be sever'd from your body—
Your body quarter'd, and expos'd upon
The city gates — a terrible example—
And the Lord God have mercy on your soul! p. 68.
Such is the work, of which, and of the doctrines it contains, Mr. Southey now assures us, that he sees no reason whatever for being ashamed, before God or before man — that it is written as a youth (if twenty might be expected to write on such a subject — that if he were now to dramatize that subject anew, he should have little to alter, although there might be much to odd; — and, finally, that his censors would not be the worse, "were they to catch from it a little of the youthful generosity which it breathes." — It is a fine thing to be thus in love with oneself — and fairly indemnifies a man, we take it, for all the ridicule which it provokes. We have but one or two very plain remarks to offer.
In the first place, we think it pretty natural to conclude, that a man who thought and wrote in this way at 21, was not likely to think or write very rationally on political subjects at any age; — and when we consider, further, that this worthy author has now proclaimed to all the world, that he carried his affection for those principles so far, as actually to have formed a plan for retiring into the wilds of America with a few chosen friends, and there realizing their blessed visions of equality and common property — having been decently educated, and exposed to no persecution at home — we really must say that the fair conclusion is, that his brain is not very sufficiently timbered, and that no length of time will ever make him a sound or a safe reasoner on matters political. Such a man may come, in time, to make good dithyrambics; and, by long and industrious practice, may turn out very pretty poet. That we do not dispute: But, for a practical statesman, we suspect there are not many people who would chase to trust him, after this specimen, or who would not be shy of following his leading, either as a reformer or a defender of the Constitution.
This is our first remark. Our second is, that if such a person should ever happen take up an opposite humour in politics, it is reasonably to be expected that he should extol Lords and Princes with the same extravagance with which he once attacked them; and manifest the same infirmity of judgment, and impatience of temper, in justifying the abuses of government, as he had originally shown in exaggerating them; — being in both equally the object of scorn and compassion to all men of sober judgment and practical knowledge. Finally, we would observe, that if such an one, not contented with vehemently condemning all that he had formerly extolled, should proceed to abuse those who leaned rather to his old than his new creed, and call upon the law to avenge those errors of opinion through which he himself thought he had been conducted to truth, he would fully deserve to be reproached with the intolerance of a proselyte, and the malignity of a renegado; — that is to say, if anybody should think it worth while to deal so seriously with a matter so ridiculous.
This is all we have to say upon the Dramatic Poem. The Letter, in laud and exposition of it, may require a little more notice. The Member for Norwich, it seems, in commenting in his place on the late groundless alarms that had been exciting in the country, and the needless severity with which Government had been called upon to act, took occasion to observe, that some of the most violent philippics against reform, and some of the loudest exhortations to take vindictive measures to repress it, were understood to originate from quarters to which no great authority could attach, and from persons in whom such sentiments were peculiarly unbecoming. In particular, he said that certain intemperate passages, which he read from a late Number of the Quarterly Review, were understood to be written by the author of Wat Tyler; with the doctrines of which exquisite piece he proceeded very briefly to contrast them, — and is said to have added, that one who could proceed to such extremities against opinions he had himself formerly professed, must be considered as acting with the malignity of a renegado. An account of these observations appeared, in the ordinary way, in the newspapers; and this is the occasion of the Epistle, vituperative and self-extolling, in which the Poet-Laureat has now entered his appeal to his country.
His first complaint is, that the attack was made in an improper place; the author not being there to defend himself. Now, whether Mr. Smith's proceeding was perfectly in good taste or not — or whether he duly consulted the dignity of Parliament in thus occupying its attention with matters so insignificant — may no doubt be made a question: But, that he had a right to make what remarks he thought fit, on any printed books that were then actually in circulation, — and that without calling their authors to the bar, we apprehend to be beyond all doubt. If any injury was done to the authors, it plainly was not so much by the speech in Parliament, a by its publication in the newspapers; and these papers were equally open to them as to the reporters of the debate.
But, says Mr. Southey, you could not know, except by report, that I wrote the passages quoted from the Quarterly Review; and I will not tell you whether I wrote them or not. This, we think, is not very manful; but it is sufficiently intelligible. If Mr. Southey had not written these passages, he would have told us plainly enough. We are a little chary, it may be supposed, of this privilege of incognito in reviewers; and readily admit, that no one is obliged to answer impertinent questions on such a subject. Yet it is impossible to deny, that there are instances in which, we suppose with the author's consent, the fact is just as notorious as if his name had been subscribed to his article. What would Mr. Southey say, for example, if Mr. Canning or Mr. Frere were to tell him, that he had no business to know or to suspect that they had written the celebrated parodies of his republican poems in the Antijacobin? The truth is, that the writers of one half of the articles in a review are impatient to be known, and take effectual measures to be so. This we take to be the case of Mr. Southey. We have understood, that he makes no secret of his having written the papers in question, — or indeed of anything else with which he illuminates the public: — and, to he sure, though a dilettanti contributor may be a little shy of acknowledging his pieces, and desirous of the protection of his mask, it is hardly to be imagined that a professional bookmaker, when he publishes anonymously, has any desire to be really concealed; and accordingly, he and his publishers commonly take good care that the fame of his name shall suffer no long obscuration. The belief, that the Reviewer's invective against seditious writings, and the call on Government to prosecute them with extraordinary rigour, were written by Mr. Southey, was universal in London, and the assertion we believe had been made, without contradiction, in various newspapers, before Mr. Smith alluded to it on the occasion we have mentioned. The report itself was ground enough for a statement that was necessarily hypothetical, and which now appears to have proceeded on a correct supposition: For there is no contradiction of the assertion yet — by Mr. Southey, or by any one for him. On the contrary, there is, in this Letter, an affectionate defence of the Reviewer, who, he says, may defy Mr. Smith to disprove any part of his statements; and, what is of more importance as to the present point, there is a distinct repetition of the Reviewer's most absurd and offensive assertions in the epistle now before us. If it were necessary to produce any further proofs of their identity we might refer to the Reviewer's singular encomium on the ingenuity and plausibility of the project for abolishing all private property — a "betise" into which nothing could possibly have seduced him but the partiality of his paternal regard for everything that had once found favour in his own eyes. Nothing that Mr. Southey ever did or said, we are perfectly persuaded, will ever appear an object of just ridicule to Mr. Southey. Though people who go but a little way in his original career of republicanism and revolution, are treated without ceremony as scoundrels, wretches, and poisoners — against whom it is disgraceful to the character of the nation, and most "dangerous to the main," that the law should not have let loose all its terrors — still his hallucinations are to be spoken of, not only with indulgence, but respect. His feelings are all to be supposed right — and his errors ascribed to an excess of youthful generosity, — while his silly scheme for the destruction of all property is discovered to be a grand but delusive idea, that has in some degree entered into all great schemes for a perfect society. Mr. Southey's papers may also be known, we think, by another notable characteristic. We allude not merely to the extraordinary dogmatism and asperity by which they are marked, but to his engaging habit of calling his opponents by the polite and dignified appellation of liars, scoundrels, and fellows — which we take to be peculiar to him among writers who profess to belong to the class of gentlemen. Was it in his attendance at court that he learned this choice phraseology? — Finally, it is not a little amusing to see this dignified and consistent person protesting with great solemnity, in one page, that it is impossible to know whether he wrote those papers in the Quarterly Review or not, because they are anonymous, and he will not tell; and, in the very next, openly accusing Mr. Brougham as a writer in the Edinburgh. Has that gentleman told him whether, or what, he has ever written in this Journal? Or is it lawful to Mr. Southey alone to know, by intuition, what it is forbidden to Mr. Smith, and all the rest of the world, to infer from the most pregnant and infallible presumptions?
But we come at last to the merits of Wat Tyler; — and the scope of the worthy author's first observations seems to be, that nobody has a right to laugh at it, because "it had been made "public," as he elegantly expresses himself, "by some skulking scoundrel, who had found booksellers not more honourable than himself to undertake the publication." — Now, these are rather bitter words, we think, considering that the work was prepared and intended for publication by the author himself — and actually failed of publication, only by the faintheartedness of the person to whom it was confided. We know nothing of the manner in which the manuscript was obtained; but with regard to the malice or moral guilt of the mere act of publication, it is plainly just the same as if the work had been actually published and forgotten in 1794, and republished and industriously circulated in 1816, on purpose to make the author ridiculous. In this respect, it would just be on a footing with the Dutchess of Marlborough's republication of Lord Grimstone's "Love in a hollow tree," and a number of other such waggeries habitually practised on occasion of elections and other popular contests, at which gentlemen of ordinary temper content themselves with laughing, or affecting to laugh — and for which, we believe, it would not be thought quite consistent with decorum for any body but a Poet-Laureate to come out with such epithets as we have now reluctantly quoted. But, let the publisher and his bookseller be as dishonourable as the poet pleases to call them — what is that to Mr. Smith, or to us, or to the thousands who cannot help tittering at the absurd figure he makes by their assistance? If a gentleman's pocket is picked, and the contents afterwards left to be owned at the police office, is nobody to laugh at his ill spelt billets-doux, or his notes for extempore pleasantry, without being supposed to take part in the guilt of the pickpocket? — Now, here is Wat Tyler in the hands of the public — fairly owned and acknowledged by the Poet-Laureate; — and if this appear irresistibly ridiculous to all who know the professions of these two great personages, why, we think, that people have a right to laugh, or to reason on the fact, without concerning themselves in any degree with the causes which have made it notorious.
The next passage, however, goes deeper into the matter — and is mighty acute and critical. — "For the book itself," says the worthy author, I deny that it is a seditious performance. — That it is a mischievous publication I know — the errors which it contains being especially dangerous at this time;" — and, therefore, he says, he came forward to claim and to suppress it — which he would not have done had it appeared in a quiet state of the public mind. Now, nothing, we admit, can be more amiable than this solicitude for the public safety — and not many things more heroic than the self-sacrifice that is here made for its sake. Yet we cannot help expressing our conviction, that the sacrifice was not at all necessary — and our doubts as to the absolute sincerity of these lofty professions. With all due respect to the learned author, we beg leave to offer it as our opinion, that his book is seditious — and that it is not at all mischievous. The criterion of sedition, is the intention to excite discontent and disaffection; — and it is impossible to read a page of it, without being satisfied that this was the sole aim and object of its ingenious author. But it is not in the least mischievous — for it is by far too silly to produce the slightest effect on any human being. Indeed, the more we look at it, the more we are astonished at its extreme innocence in this way. Candidly speaking, we really think it is considerably more tame and stupid than any thing we ever read; and, so far from being what was to be expected from a well educated young man of twenty-one, we are quite sure, that there are many patriotic misses of fourteen, who could produce something much more spirited and sensible as a holiday exercise. However, to set the worthy author's heart at ease, about the mischief it may be doing in the country, and to console him under the unlucky miscarriage of his praiseworthy endeavours to suppress so seducing and dangerous a publication, we think it right to assure him, that we never happened to hear it mentioned, except as a matter of pleasantry; and that we rather think it never was surmised before, that it had been published with any hope of promoting the interests of rebellion by its tenets or its eloquence. On the contrary, we honestly believe, that the publishers had nothing more in view than to make the author ridiculous, by its extreme silliness, and by the curious contrast between its extravagant republicanism and the other more profitable extravagances in which he has lately indulged. The state of the public mind may thus have been rendered something gayer by its appearance; but we think, we can answer for it, that it has not become a bit more disloyal. Mr. Southey, we are afraid, will not take our word for these consolatory truths; but, if he will ask any intrepid friend he has, we are persuaded he will find that our statement may be perfectly relied on.
The next proposition in the Letter, we confess, startled us not a little. To extenuate the guilt of having written, and wished to publish such a performance as Wat Tyler in 1794, the learned author assures us, that, "at that time, republicanism was confined to a very small number of the educated classes." This, we suppose, is meant for poetry — for, as sober prose, it is altogether incomprehensible. What! — republicanism confined to a very few, and of the educated classes, in 1794, — when the land was full of the disciples of Payne and Godwin — when the societies of Friends of the People, and the Corresponding Societies, and the British Convention, and the United Irishmen, had extended their lights into every corner of the land, and when scarcely a village was to he found, that did not send delegates to these Associations, and receive from them the refreshment of some apostolic mission or itinerant lecture! — If ever there was a time when republican and revolutionary doctrines were extensively diffused in this country, and had reached at least as low as the whole reading classes it contains, it was in the year 1794, when the French Republic was in the meridian of its most insane and triumphant exaltation, and the signal successes of its votaries had given an air of fascination even to their greatest enormities. We really believe there is not an alarmist now in the kingdom, except the Poet-Laureate himself, who would have the courage to insinuate, that there is more republicanism in England at this moment than there was in 1794. The cause was then new, and triumphant, and terrible — now it is stale, disgraced, and contemptible; — all the reasonings by which it was then so plausibly supported, have since been refuted, not only by better reasonings, but by large, long, and most mortifying experience; and, unless it be the extraordinary fascination of Wat Tyler, and the lucubrations of Messrs Spence and Evans, we are really at a loss to conjecture, by what circumstances it should be supposed to have been again restored to favour and credit.
After this, we have about twenty pages all in a foam with self-praise and impotent anger — presenting a lamentable struggle between extreme soreness and incurable conceit — and exhibiting the humiliating picture of self-adulation, licking with fruitless affection the festering sores of wounded vanity. There we are told, over and over again, that this pitiful stuff of Wat Tyler "bears no indications of an ungenerous spirit, or a malevolent heart," but of "feelings right in themselves, but wrong only in their direction;" — that it is false that the author has ever imputed evil motives to men for holding the doctrines he himself formerly professed, — and that it is also false that he has ever written anything jealous or vindictive. That he has been abused and insulted more than any man ever was, both in prose and rhyme, by Jacobins and Antijacobins, ever since 1796; and never condescended to answer till now, though "it will not be supposed that the ability for satire was wanting" — but because the enmity of such people really did him honour; — and that "he accepted the hatred of sciolists, coxcombs and profligates, as a sure proof that he was deserving well of the wise and the good." We are moreover assured, that if he could only have ceased to detest tyranny, and abhor wicked ambition, he "might have been sure of the approbation of Mr. Smith, and the whole crew of ultra Whigs and anarchists, from Messrs Brougham and Clodius, to Cobbet, Cethegus, & Co.;" — and by and by he turns round and asks, with the most interesting simplicity, "Whom have I libelled? whom have I traduced? Whom have I slandered? — But these miscreants (the modern advocates of revolution) live by calumny, and are libellers and liars by trade." Moreover, we are told, that the worst that can be said of him is, "that while events have been moving on upon the great theatre of human affairs, his intellect has not been stationary;" that other people might keep their faces to the east all day, and look for the sun there in the evening; but that, for his part, he has altered his position as the world went round;" that there can be no sympathy between him and Mr. Smith, even when they think alike; and that, though Mr. Smith may judge of him by himself, and think that a pretty fair criterion, he, Mr. Southey, "must protest against being measured by any such standard." That if Mr. Smith did really call him a renegade, he brands him for it on the forehead with the name of slanderer, and that the mark will outlast his epitaph. Finally, we are told that the learned author's whole history will be read hereafter; — not only at the beginning of various editions of his works, but in numerous Biographical publications, both foreign and domestic; — and that, in that history, among a number of other complimentary and curious things, it will be carefully recorded, that, though much abused, he never answered any body, but Mr. Smith; and that "on that occasion he vindicated himself as it became him to do — and treated his calumniator with just and 'memorable' severity."
This, we think, is a pretty fair account of the Letter, in as far as it is personal and appropriate. — Of some of the general political dogmas that are here repeated, we may say a few words afterwards; — at present we have a little remark or two to make on the matters we have now abstracted.
Mr. Southey complains of having been more attacked and inu1ted than any man. Did it never occur to him, that there must have been something about him peculiarly calculated to provoke these attacks? and if he had only pondered a little upon their peculiar nature, we think he might have discovered what this was. All these attacks, we rather think, were in the way of ridicule and derision; — at least, we do not recollect any body who has thought it worth while to abuse him in good earnest. The Antijacobins parodied his Jacobin lyrics and Regicide inscriptions — and the Edinburgh Reviewers made sport with his Laureate odes and his habitual affectations. This we think, is the worst that has befallen him. Now, if a man has been laughed at for twenty years together, we suspect it will be pretty clear to every body but himself, that there must be something rather laughable about him, and that, in all probability, he would only have made himself more ridiculous by retorting. However, as Mr. Southey says nobody can doubt that he has a talent for satire, we wish heartily that he would produce it. We are quite sure that he will succeed perfectly in making at least one person ridiculous — and that is something. But we are afraid he has not temper enough for a satirist — nor a sufficient familiarity with the language of polite life. — Raillery, we would beg leave to hint to him, is something essentially different from railing; and if he were to content himself, as he now does, with calling his opponents scoundrels, liars, profligates and atheists, we are afraid that nobody would laugh — and nobody smart but his bookseller. — But to return to his persecutions.
They began, he says, in 1796, and have had no remission ever since. Jacobins and Antijacobins have treated him with equal injustice; and both sides have united to abuse him. This is particularly hard no doubt; but, when the thing comes to be explained, it really is not quite so unaccountable. These two parties did not attack him at the same time, nor exactly for the same things; — both laughed indeed at the puling affectation of his style, and the feeble and tragical emphasis of his execrations. But, in other respects, their conduct was natural and fair enough. The Antijacobins attacked him in 1796, when he was a Jacobin — and the Jacobins, or those he is pleased to call Jacobins, in 1816, when he had become an Antijacobin, or something still more outrageous. We do not think Mr. Southey has much right to complain of this. The parties acted after their kind — and he seems to glory in the fact, that he was successively the natural prey of both. But the parties, we think, have some little reason to complain of him; — and of the way in which they are both spoken of by this oracular weathercock, who is not contented with abusing them alternately, but, in order to make out that he is exclusively and eternally in the right, thinks fit, at the present day, to abuse them both together. Both persecutions, he says, were unjust and intolerant and calumnious — and both sets of his enemies, as far as we understand, are sciolists and coxcombs and profligates, by whose hostility he is honoured. Now, when a Jacobin is converted to an Antijacobin, and along with his pension takes up his pen, in common course, to abuse his old associates, with the zeal of a proselyte, and the rancour of a renegado, it is usual, we believe, for him to acknowledge, that the Antijacobin abuse, of which he was formerly the victim, was all richly deserved; and even to extol the mildness and forbearance of those old tormentors of his, whom he has now joined, and proposes to outgo. Mr. Southey, however, insists for a dispensation from this law in his own behalf. He is ready enough to denounce and invoke vengeance upon every other man's Jacobinism, antient or modern — and to practise all Antijacobin uncharity with regard to it. But, for his own former offences in this way, — these must he treated with reverence; and he must still be allowed, though in full pay and employment on the other side, to maintain, that it was cruel and unjust to attack him on account of them, and that he was wronged more than roan was ever wronged by his loyal opponents, — and deserves infinite credit for his forbearance in not having put forth his satirical vein, and demolished them on the spot. It is impossible, we think, to put any other meaning on his expressions. He says, in distinct terms, that when he wrote Wat Tyler and his other republican pieces, "a spirit of Antijacobinism was predominant, as unjust and intolerant as the Jacobinism of the present day." (p. 7.) And afterwards, he speaks with the same indiscriminating resentment and contempt of "the abuse and calumny with which he has been assailed, from one party or the other, Antijacobins or Jacobins, in daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly publications since the year 1796." (p. 43.) And the reference is equally general and comprehensive, when he says, that "none of the innumerable attacks that have been made upon his works, has ever called forth a word of reply, though he could (of course) have triumphantly exposed his assailants," &c. — "The unprovoked insults," he proceeds, "which have been levelled at me, both in prose and in rhyme, never induced me to retaliate. I knew that men might be appreciated from the character of their enemies as well as of their friends; and I accepted the hatred of sciolists, coxcombs, and profligates as one sure proof that I was deserving well of the wise and of the good." (p. 11.) Now this, as well as the other passages, is directly applicable to all his works, and the whole of his illustrious career. Indeed, we know of no insults in verse, that have been levelled at him, except the noted parodies of Messrs Canning and Frere; so that it is impossible to doubt that those learned persons, together with all the Ministers for 1796, and "the dark Vizier" at their head, are here classed under the apt denomination of sciolists, coxcombs, and profligates — as well as Messrs Smith and Brougham, with Lord Grey, Sir Samuel Romilly, and the other ultra Whigs, as he is pleased to term them, to whom it is more directly applied.
In all the varieties of human littleness and folly, which the nature of our vocation daily unmasks to us, we confess that we have seldom met with any trait of character more amusng than this long-cherished grudge against Antijacobin persecution, in a person who has been for some years the most intolerant Antijacobin in existence. But Mr. Southey, we fear, is not of a forgiving nature; — and the crime of having parodied his republican effusions, will be for ever inexpiable in his eyes. Any thing else might have been pardoned to Mr. Canning; — his coquetting with the Whigs — his defence of the Catholics — his rebellion against the majesty of Lord Castlereagh — and all the other acts of occasional liberality by which his life has been distinguished: — But the crime of lese-majeste against the genius of Mr. Southey could admit of no atonement: And accordingly, the witty ridicule of his sentimental slang, which enlivened the earlier numbers of the Antijacobin, is still fiercely resented as an unprovoked insult — a persecution as unjust and intolerant as that which he now undergoes from the ferocious Jacobins of the present day. — Now, it really is not very easy to reconcile all this. What would the worthy Laureate be at? He admits that Wat Tyler, and his other writings of that day were mischievous-and nobody can doubt that they were intended to produce discontent and disaffection to our Monarchical constitution, and our system of opposition to the republican principles of France; yet, at the distance of twenty years, and after he has utterly renounced all these opinions, he complains of the severity with which the Antijacobins pursued them — though all the severity consisted in a little innocent derision. Would he have been better pleased to have been clapped up in prison for two years, or transported to Botany Bay for fourteen? These, or something more severe than these, are the punishments which he now calls on the Government to inflict on all seditious publications; and yet, though he substantially confesses that his own were in the foremost rank of sedition, he still mutters about the insult and oppression he suffered on account of them, although he was let off with merely being laughed at. This, we confess, seems to us not merely self-love, but self-idolatry.
The same amiable weakness, indeed, is visible in some of the other remarks we have cited from this famous epistle. Mr. Southey's intellect has kept pace with the great movements of human affairs. The events of the last twenty-five years have been lost on Mr. Smith; but Mr. Southey has made the right use of them. Other men continue to look for the sun in the East, after evening has come; but Mr. Southey alters his position, as the world goes round. This is all admirable: But does it not prove a little too much? — Does it not prove, that Mr. Southey, and Mr. Southey alone, was right both morning, noon and night; and consequently, that, to be perfect as he is perfect, we ought not only to be all Antijacobins now, but to have been Jacobins in 1796? If he has always turned with the sun, and moved with the great train of affairs, then he must just have been as miraculously right in his opinions, when he was a Jacobin as he is now; and the only men, whose principles are to he reprobated, are those who, like Mr. Smith, have had the obstinacy not to change them — and upon whom, therefore, the experience of the last twenty-five years has been utterly thrown away. But it is time to come to more weighty matters.
After thus indignantly repelling Mr. Smith's attack on his consistency and moderation, the learned author prefaces, what may he termed the didactic part of his work, with the following lofty sentence.
"And now, Sir, learn what are the opinions of the man to whom you have offered this public and notorious wrong; ... opinions not derived from any contagion of the times, nor entertained with the unreflecting eagerness of youth, nor adopted in connexion with any party in the state; but gathered patiently, during many years of leisure and retirement, from books, observation, meditation, and intercourse with living minds who will be the light of other ages." — p. 28, 29.
This is a magnificent introduction, no doubt; but the matter that follows is worthy of it. He has always been a hater of slavery, he assures us, though he has ceased to wish for revolutions, even in countries where great changes are to be desired. This is a very pretty profession, we admit; but when we compare it with the practical strain of the worthy author's political lucubrations, we can scarcely regard it as anything else than one of those formal tributes to the name of liberty which it is not yet thought safe for its enemies, in this country, to withhold. The common course with all our abettors of arbitrary power, is to profess the greatest inward veneration for liberty, and to give it a little mouth-honour, now and then, in the abstract — but to discourage all that might tend to promote it, and eagerly and angrily to defend all those institutions by which it is repressed. We have almost as little love for revolutions as the Laureate has; but our dislike to them, and our system of prevention, look, we imagine, rather another way. There is but one radical cause, we take it, for these disastrous movements, — and that is, gross misgovernment on the part of the rulers — either new and direct oppression, or a tenacity of obsolete abuses, that cannot be otherwise overcome. There never was any national revolution accomplished, scarcely any attempted, that may not be referred to this cause, and that might not have been prevented, by timely concessions and reasonable reformations, on the part of the Government. The cabals of discontented individuals, the intrigues of mischief-loving men, may no doubt accelerate such an event, or even excite local and temporary disorders, where there is no real cause of dissatisfaction: But revolutions have always deeper causes; and, originating in the faults of the Government, can only be effectually prevented by the correction of those faults. If history have taught any certain lessons, this is among them. Now, what are the preventives recommended by this Laurelled hater of revolutions — and what is the course of doctrine and of policy which this hatred has prompted him to disclose? In the present crisis of affairs, at home and abroad, he can see nothing of the faults of governments. The people alone are to blame. Bonaparte, indeed, he abuses with as much rancour as if he had once been his Laureate; but not a word is breathed of the enormities of Ferdinand, who has been guilty of more acts of oppression and ingratitude during his short reign, than stained the ermine of the Emperor during all his remorseless career The Liberales are habitually sneered at, and Constitutionalists made a name of mockery. He can declaim on the foul abominations of the Romish harlot, with reference to the question of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland — but has not a word to say against the Inquisition in Spain, or the persecution of the Protestants in France; and is quite patriotic and edifying on the lawless invasion of weak states by Bonaparte — though he has not a rebuke in store for the partition of Poland, or the perfidious destruction of Genoa or Ragusa by the act of legitimate sovereigns. While we laud his dread of revolutions, therefore, which is sufficiently manifested in all his late lucubrations, we must confess we should have been better pleased to have seen some other proofs of his love of liberty than his silence upon all the abuses of existing governments, and his infinite horror at all manifestations of popular discontent or impatience.
But though he has left us rather awkwardly in the dark as to the nature of his care for foreign liberty, the worthy Laureate has been duly communicative on the more important point of our domestic freedom. Hero, indeed, the warmth of his zeal has broken out into oracle and inspiration; and, oracular as he is, it cannot be pretended that there is any difficulty in understanding his meaning. This is the sum of his doctrine — "It is THE PEOPLE at this time who stand in need of Reformation — not the Government." And, a little after — "Government must reform the populace — the people must reform themselves. This is the true reform; and, compared with this, all else is 'flocci, nauci, nihili, pili!'"
This, it must be admitted, is equally pithy and elegant. But he condescends to enter farther into details — and favours Mr. Smith, undeserving as he seems to be of such honour, with his own "patiently gathered," as we have seen, "from many years meditation and study," as to the true practical remedies for the sufferings and discontent under which we now labour. These are four in number — First, to put down seditious writings, by the enactment and unsparing execution of new and more severe laws. — Second, to buy land estates for the poor. — Third, to educate all the poor in the Established Religion, and by means of the Established Church. — Fourth, and finally, to increase the expenditure of Government as much and as fast as possible. These are the recipes for promoting the happiness, and securing the liberty of our people, which are now seriously proposed by Mr. Southey, with such an air of undoubting confidence in their efficacy, as to leave no doubt that they are, as he tells us, the precious result of many years hard study and diligent observation in the bosom of his own family. They really deserve to be a little more nearly considered.
The first response of the oracle is as follows—
"The Government must better the condition of the populace; and the first thing necessary is to prevent it from being worsened (what a nice pretty word!) It must no longer suffer itself to be menaced, its chief magistrate insulted, and its most sacred institutions vilified with impunity. It must curb the seditious press, and keep it curbed. For this purpose, if the laws are not at present effectual, they should be made so; nor will they then avail, unless they are vigilantly executed." p. 31, 32.
Now, nobody, of course, can patronize sedition, — or object to its being repressed. But, considering the extreme difficulty of ascertaining what sedition is, and the great hazard of having free and salutary discussion repressed along with it, we confess that we think it better, in general, to leave it to the castigation of the antiseditious press — and let it he laughed or reasoned down by the ordinary, operation of sound reason, and animated debate. To be sure, when a piece so extremely seductive and difficult to be answered as Wat Tyler comes in the way, there may be a strong temptation to call in the terrors of the law to the help of our overmastered reason; — and perhaps it was with a view to such extreme cases, that the worthy Laureate made this patriotic suggestion. At the same time, we cannot help conjecturing, from the strain of some of those quarterly effusions which he refuses to disavow, and even from the tenor of the profound speculations with which we are now engaged, that the Laureate's practical notions of curbing might go a good deal further. We there find, that he is of opinion that infinite mischief has been done, and is doing, by all those writings which recommend retrenchment, or advocate reform — which lead the people to believe that their sufferings are in any degree to be imputed to the faults of the Government, past or present, or that there is reason for any amendment whatever in the great institutions of our country. — All these writings, therefore, we imagine, he would think it necessary to suppress — and would probably consider it as a duty to transport, or imprison for life, all authors and publishers who presumed to circulate such pestilent discourses! We believe no practical statesman is of opinion with Mr. Southey, either that it is necessary to enact new laws for the repression of sedition — or that it would be expedient, or even tolerable, to put the present laws in force, in every case in which there might be room far their operation. But, that a suggestion of this kind should proceed from a man, who has in his time offended so signally against those laws, and has been indebted for his safety to that lenity in their administration, which he alone lifts up his voice to reprove, might excite our wonder and disgust, if extremes did not tend to expose extremes, and absurdity make all errors innoxious. The absurdity, indeed, sets all gravity at defiance, when it is considered that this same person, who thinks the present laws against sedition not half severe enough, continues, up to the present hour, to complain of the slight moral discipline by which his own sedition was chastized, in far more dangerous times — and cries out with one and the same breath, against the persecution he then suffered for his levelling principles, and against the lenity with which those are treated who now approach to the same doctrines.
The scheme of abolishing the poor-rates, by settling all the poor as farmers on certain national domains to be purchased out of our surplus revenue, is professedly borrowed from Mr. Owen, of whose project we may hereafter find a fitter opportunity of speaking. It certainly appears to the greatest possible disadvantage in the hands of the Laureate; and is itself, we are afraid, just as visionary and fantastic as was necessary to secure his patronage and approbation. The real evil is the excess of our population, which this scheme would obviously tend to aggravate; and the result would be, that besides a horde of discontented and unproductive agriculturists, we should have just as many ordinary paupers as before. Suppose the enormous expense of the first establishment got over, and all the present race of paupers settled comfortably on the national lands — our manufactures, we suppose, are not to he deserted, and all our other undertakings are still to be supplied with hands as formerly: But it is the fluctuating demand for labour, which is produced by the fluctuating profit of those undertakings, which every now and then throws such shoals of unemployed artisans on the parish; and this cause must continue to operate after the national farms are all occupied, just as before. In short, we should just have a new race of compulsory agriculturists, toiling for a bare subsistence, without profit, superadded to the rest of our redundant population; and we should merely pension off the present lace of paupers on a permanent and perpetual provision, to make room for another race, for whom no such resource could be provided. This, however, we suspect, is rather beyond the depth of our Laureate — who talks very eloquently of colonizing at home with disbanded soldiers and sailors — and thus lightening the poor-rates, encouraging manufactures, and even "providing a permanent source of revenue." — Very pleasant certainly, and feasible!
The Laureate's third panacea is the education of the poor; and, with his constitutional horror at half learning, which he repeatedly says is far worse than ignorance, we confess we were rather surprised at his having the courage to recommend it at all. Most certainly, half learning is all that the bulk of the poor can ever expect to obtain; and if we thought, as he dues, that it was worse than none, we should be compelled to decide against giving them any education. But then, the worthy poet is not for trusting them with the dangerous arts of reading and writing alone: — By no means; — "they must also be instructed according to the Established Religion;" and the scheme of their education is to be "so connected with the Church, as to form part of the Establishment; and thus we shall find it a bulwark to the State, as well as to the Church." Now, there really seems to us to be something portentous in this, — coming from the pen of a layman who holds as yet but a small ornamental sinecure, not depending on ecclesiastical patronage, and who professes great philanthropy and liberality. The question is, how best to counteract the grievous ignorance, improvidence and profligacy, of the lower orders; and when the answer is — By education; — up starts the Poet-Laureate, and puts in this qualification, that they shall get no education unless they conform to the Church of England, and come for it to a school that is part of the Church Establishment! This, we suppose, would, in point of fact, exclude about two-thirds of the subjects of this realm — and those who are most in need of it; and all this in order that a bulwark may be reared up for the Church, and the people attached to their national institutions. From this intolerant and flaming zeal for the Church of England, one would naturally suppose that Mr. Southey had been a Dissenter in his youth; and though we know nothing whatever of the matter, he has dropped some hints in the course of this epistle that scent to countenance that supposition: — where he says, for example, that his "Joan of Arc" received the approbation of all "the dissenting journals" of the day; and that his fine scheme of emigration to America was much talked of among certain sects of Christians. But whether this desire to exclude all sectaries from the benefits of a national education proceeds from mere hostility to all the objects of his early attachment, or from principles of more comprehensive patriotism and prudence, it is impossible not to be struck with the singular figure it makes among the ways and means by which discontent and vice, as well as poverty and disaffection, are to be eradicated from society. Does the worthy Laureate now hold, that all Dissenters are so profligate and seditious by nature, that reading and writing would only make them more dangerous? — or does he hope, by this exclusion, to force them gently back within the pale of the Church, by refusing them all instruction elsewhere? Whatever his views may be, there is certainly great originality in proposing such a restriction, as a means of attaching the Dissenting population to the Government of the country.
But the grand secret and glorious discovery of the excellent Laureate remains still to be mentioned. It is, that the present distress of the country proceeds entirely from the extreme parsimony of the Government — and that the only catholic remedy is, for it to increase its levies and its expenditure without sparing. We are afraid that this would not be believed upon our report — and therefore we must quote the words of this learned Theban himself, whose opinions have been maturing among the mountains of Cumberland, during, we know not how many years of intense study and deep meditation. "Never, indeed," says he, "was there a more senseless cry than that which is at this time raised for retrenchment in the public expenditure, as a means of alleviating the present distress. Men are out of employ. The evil is, that too little is spent; and, as a remedy, we are exhorted to spend less. This is dwelt upon with the same complacency for some time; — and so perfectly assured and satisfied is he with this brilliant position, that he proceeds to taunt, somewhat severely, the unfortunate speculators who have recommended a reduction of our establishments. There are many mouths, he says, without food, because the hands want work; — "and for this reason, the State Quack requires further reduction. 'O lepidum caput!' and it is by such heads as this that we are to be reformed" — Nay, there is yet more of the same pattern — "Instead, therefore, of this senseless cry for retrenchment, which is like prescribing depletion for a patient, whose complaints proceed from inanition, a liberal expenditure should be advised in works of public utility and magnificence. Build, therefore, our monuments," &c. &c.
Now, we must say, that the utter absurdity of those passages, combined with the undoubting confidence with which they are brought forward, have given us a higher idea than we ever entertained before of Mr. Southey's poetical genius. — Nothing, we conceive, but the true poetic temperament could have given birth to such conceptions — or blinded the author's eyes to the glaring fallacy of his assumptions: For the whole of this most comfortable doctrine rests upon the ingenious supposition, that Government has the means of spending without measure or limit — and that its present moderation in that particular arises merely from a sort of stinginess, which will probably be overcome by the warmth and eloquence of his exhortations. — Now, we are very much afraid that this is not exactly the case; and., at all events, it is to be regretted, that the worthy Laureate did not think of inquiring a little into the cause of this effect; — "or rather," as the sage Polonius expresses it, "of this defect — for this effect defective comes by cause," — as he might then perhaps have discovered, that the insufficiency of our expenditure was occasioned entirely by the difficulty of raising funds to supply it — and that the remedy which he prescribes, however pleasant and desireable in itself, really could not be conveniently applied in the present posture of our affairs.
If things, indeed, were otherwise, — if Government could raise money to any given amount, by its own creative fiat, and without at all burdening or distressing the people, nothing, to be sure, could be easier, or more laudable, than to employ all the idle people in the land at double wages, on works of utility and magnificence, — or of no utility or magnificence at all. On that delectable supposition, there could be no possible objection to giving all the paupers in the country handsome allowances, and employing them in parading up and down the streets with standards and bands of music. Nay, nobody would grudge that the salary even of the Poet-Laureate should be multiplied tenfold, and an additional butt of Sherry rolled into his cellar for every ode he indited. But, alas, when things are but too notoriously in the very opposite situation — when the pressure of taxation has not only swallowed up the income, but actually annihilated the capital of many of the most industrious individuals in the country — when the household furniture of hundreds of decent families is sold every day in the street for arrears of taxes — and the expenditure of every householder is necessarily restricted by absolute inability, within the most penurious limits, it does sound something wild and extravagant, and poetical, and lyrical, to talk of relieving the distresses of the country by a liberal expenditure by the Government in works of public magnificence. The money which the Government is thus exhorted to spend, it must first squeeze from the pockets of its subjects — and to that extent, at least, their expenditure must be diminished. If they had been allowed to keep it — and could with prudence afford to lay it out for their own ends, it would equally be spent as if it was handed over to Government for that purpose; — and the only difference would be, that the owners would, in all likelihood, spend it profitably and productively, while the Government would throw it away; — that the one would use it to maintain productive labour, and make it act as the spring of a long series of prosperous industry — while the other would consume it in the payment of soldiers, tax-gatherers and sinecurists, in whose hands it would be productive of nothing. But, if the original owner could not afford to spend it in his own business, or for his own enjoyments, still less can he afford to pay it in taxes: And this hopeful project for charming away the poverty of the country, by a liberal expenditure on the part of Government, turns out to be nothing else than a device for completing the impoverishment of the industrious part of the community, and cutting off the sources of future wealth and prosperity, in order to enable Government to maintain, a little longer, its hosts of stipendiary servants: — And the worthy Laureate, who comes down from the mountains with this precious scheme of finance on his shoulders, cackles, with vast self-complacency, at the state quacks who recommend economy, — and imagines himself the most profound genius in the world, because he can talk, with physiological solemnity, of depletion and inanition, — and compare, in bucolic strains, "the wealth which is taken from the people, to vapours which are drawn imperceptibly from the earth, but distributed to it in refreshing dews and fertilizing showers." — How amazingly pretty!
Of a truth, the Laureate shines in Political Economy — but he had better keep to his Spanish Romances.