1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Anna Seward to Miss Posonby, 29 December 1796; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 4:293-99.



Lichfield, Dec. 29. 1796.

Though I have anxiously longed for renewed intercourse with the ornaments of Langollen Vale, and began to fear that the length of its suspension might be the result of impaired health, or new inquietude, yet were their last letters too sweetly affectionate, their reception, since I last wrote, of my friends, Mr. Saville and his daughter, too liberally condescending and kind, for any suspicion of faded amity to wound my heart. Deeply, I confess, would such a suspicion wound, and punish the thankless guilt of its adoption. Those other not unworthy fears, the offspring of silence, vanish, now the sun of communication shines out, gilds the closing year, and will illuminate the dawn of its successor.

Conscious that my remonstrance against the increase of my full measure of obligation would prove unavailing, I imputed the delayed arrival of Joan of Arc to its true cause, and, therefore, had she previously presented herself to me, I should have closed my eyes against her poetic powers — and they are very far indeed beyond my expectation, from the youth of the author, and the disgusting arrogance of his well-written preface. Those poetic powers are now rising upon me in all the glow of novelty. I had seen no review of this work. Scarce ever do I look at the silly remarks of the hireling critics upon poetry. My progress through Joan of Arc is very slow, and slow I always make it over a composition of real genius. Deplorably scanty as is my leisure for reading, I cannot gallop through such writing as this. I read repeatedly every passage that truck me with beauty, or with defect, and with pen and paper before me, to record their impressions. Thus I have, as yet, only attained the close of the second book.

While I admire the splendours of imagination, which flash upon me in this poem, I must consider them as the baleful beauties of the lightning. O Southey! is this a period in which to exalt the French character, and, with parricide impulse, to depreciate that of England?

Dost thou presume to prophecy, that what thou unfeelingly callest "the stormy morning, shall have a cloudless noon" — never, never! — dark and sunless are the principles by which it rose — by which it is supported.

As a poem, Joan of Arc has high merit. Though defect is frequent on its pages, yet, at the conclusion of the second book, I have risen from it with a disposition to believe that we have had nothing of such manly greatness, except from Chatterton, at an age so early as that of its author.

The style of the first book seems to waver in its choice of a model between Milton and Cowper. In the greatly superior second, it becomes wholly Miltonic. The ardour of imitation is very apt to mislead the judgment. It has produced that consequence in this epic; because Milton, in the Paradise Lost, has often harsh versification, to make the sound echo the sense, Southey perpetually, and wantonly offends he ear, by inharmonious and stiff lines, which answer no imitative purpose. But the ideas are frequently of unborrowed greatness and beauty, though sometimes obscure and confused. The preternatural agency has immense sublimity, though the episode of night, and the dream, engendered by fierce bate and gloomy hope, is to me of "unimaginable" import. That episode, notwithstanding the fine lines at the beginning, disturbs the wildly magnificent machinery of the ice-built island, its meteor-lighted palace, and the allegoric demons, its terrible inhabitants.

The obscure episode I mentioned, imitates Milton's, of Sin and Death; but there the allegory is obvious as it is sublime. In this same fine second book of Southey's, the start of ambition, and his smile of savage joy, though not equal to the ghastly smile of Milton's Death, are yet striking pictures.

An extremely fine idea is the apparition of Joan, which is placed before her mortal eyes. Though certainly suggested by the vision shewn to Adam by the angel from the mountain, in the eleventh book of Paradise Lost, Cain murdering Abel, yet I think our young bard, in that circumstance, transcends his original. Joan's apparition seems shewn to her for more important purpose, viz. that the false hope of reward might have no share in stimulating her exertions. The consciousness of final martyrdom, given by this vision, extremely exalts her character.

The strain of death-foreboding music, which ensues, is beautifully introduced and described; and the epithet "calmy" for midnight, is lovely. If the author had heard your or my Eolian harp, breathing their sweet, their solemn, and various harmonies, he would have introduced it here, as a simile.

The impersonization of doubtful and insecure peace, alluding to that eighteen months truce which our admired Henry gave to France after the battle of Agincourt, is amongst the most exquisite instances of poetic imagery; but ah! on recurring to the preface, I find, that the martyr-dooming apparition, the death-boding music, and the sweet convalescent, representing insecure peace, are Mr. Colridge's. In the progress of the poem, we shall see if the author equals the excellence of the poetic present that was made him. I do not think any thing quite so admirable preceded these pictures; but then, again, this acknowledged tribute of friendship exonerates the author from the disturbing episode, as to its com position at least.

The siege of Rouen is pathetically described; but if the author was capable of feeling real pity for such distresses, and honest, virtuous, impartial indignation towards those who inflict them, would he not have execrated that hellish revolution, which, to exalt and applaud, is the chief design for which this poem was written? — during which thousands and tens of thousands fraternized tyrants, have inflicted miseries more remorseless than those which, on his pages, he meant should stain the memory of our fifth Henry. The lamentable wretchedness his not unjust claims on France caused, are practised by all who besiege a city that will not capitulate, and whose provisions the army before it have power to intercept; but Liberty, how much greater have been her evils, with her multiplied bastiles, where loathsome filth was added to the immuring misery of the single Bastile existing under the old government — crowded with old age, pregnant women, and infants, besides the throngs who, in the prime and strength of life, were thus bastiled and destroyed for being known to have wealth, and for being suspected to wish the return of law and justice to their wretched country, and of protection by subordinate sway! Oh! if genuine Liberty had produced the revolution, she would have disdained force, and abhorred cruelty; neither confiscation, nor imprisonment, nor death, would have marked her progress. She would have left every one free to choose between regal government and a republic, and left the decision to the majority. But this false Duessa! — those who give to her the name of Liberty, after having known her tree by its fruits — alas! that rising genius, splendid as this author's, should thus disgrace itself!

Adieu, dearest Madam! — I am sure yourself and Lady Eleanor will lament with me these indelible stains on poetic laurels of such early vigour, and luxuriant growth!