1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Walter Scott, in "Living Poets" Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 (1810) 2:421-23.



MR. ROBERT SOUTHEY, one of the highest names in English literature, stands second of the triumvirate [of Campbell, Southey, and Scott] in our casual arrangement. His life was early dedicated to poetry and learning, in preference to "preferment's pleasing paths." It can be as little doubted that he has found his own happiness in the exchange, as that his choice has given him opportunity to add to that of thousands. His most ardent admirers are of a class with whom it is difficult to argue: They are the enthusiasts — Almost the methodists of poetry. There is perhaps no species of applause so congenial to the spirit, or so flattering to the author, as that which resigns the reins so totally into his hands, and allows itself to be hurried along with his rapid movements, however bold, devious, and even capricious. We dare not say, however, that the possession of this absolute monarchy over his admirers is altogether favourable to the general character of the poet. Despotic power leads, in almost every instance, to fantastic exercise of it on the part of the possessor; and he who, within the circle of his partizans, feels himself exempted from the controul of criticism, is too naturally led to neglect what is transmitted from more remote quarters. Censure is always an unpalatable draught, even when mixed and offered by a friendly hand; but when the cup is presented by one that is cold, suspicious, or unfriendly, we are afraid the salutary bitter stands little chance of being swallowed. Yet we cannot quarrel with the wild and arbitrary exercise of genius to which we owe the wonderous tale of Thalaba, and which has given rise to some anomalous luxuriancies in the more regular poem of Madoc. It seems to us that the author, giving way to an imagination naturally prolific of the fairest visions, is sometimes too much wrapt in his own aerial world to consider whether the general mass of readers can accompany his flight. The beauties of such composition are calculated for those who have the keenest and most exquisite feeling of poetic excellence, and whose pleasure is too engrossing not to purchase pardon for a thousand errors. But the aristarch reverses this rule, because it is his profession to find fault; and the common herd of readers also reverse it, for the beauties of such a tale as Thalaba are beyond their comprehension; while its want of rhyme, irregularity of stanza, and extravagance of story, are circumstances at once strange, stumbling, and obvious. The judicious critic will, we think, steer a middle path, although we acknowledge the difficulty of keeping its tenour. We conceive that such, while he felt and acknowledged the warmth of Mr. Southey's feeling, while he admired the inexhaustible riches of his imagination, while he applauded with enthusiasm that generous sentiment which has ever tuned his harp to the celebration of moral and intellectual excellence, might, at the same time, he allowed to deplore the circumstances which have often hidden the light under the bushel, and limited to the comparatively small circle of a few enthusiastic admirers, that fame, which, in common justice to Mr. Southey's genius, ought to have been echoed and re-echoed from all the four seas which gird in Britain. Were we asked what those circumstances are, we should not hesitate to name a resolute contempt of the ordinary and received rules of poetry, and a departure from their precepts, to shocking to all our pre-conceived opinions and expectations. We cannot stop to enquire whether Mr. Southey may not, in many instances, be able to make a rational and reasonable apology for neglecting the prescriptive rules of art. It is sufficient to our present purpose, that no author, however undoubted his genius, can hope to stem the public opinion by swimming directly contrary to its current. But, besides the impolicy of this departure from the usual and generally-sanctioned practice of his predecessors, we hold that there is a gross want of taste in many of the novelties thus fixed upon. Thus, the language of bare and rude simplicity, with which this beautiful poet sometimes chooses to veil the innate elegance of his conceptions, appears to us not only contradictory to our prejudices, which have been accustomed to ascribe a particular strain of exalted diction to their developement, but in itself a great deformity. In assuming a quaker-like, and, of course, an unusual, and sometimes even a vulgar form of expression, Mr. Southey powerfully reminds us of the precept of Boileau:—

Sans la langue en un mot, l'auteur le plus divin,
Est toujours, quoi qu'il fasse, un mechant ecrivain.

This is the more provoking, because it is obvious these aberrations are not the consequences of ignorance, which might be illuminated, but of a determined purpose and system, which we cannot hope our feeble exhortations will have any effect in subverting. Yet we wish Mr. Southey would at least make the experiment of shooting one shaft with the wind, and we venture to pledge ourselves, that, without injuring himself with his most enthusiastic admirers, he will add to them thousands who are now startled at some obvious eccentricities, and care not to look deeper, and judge more ripely. If a traveller should choose to pursue his journey in a common labourer's jacket and trowsers, we are afraid that his engaging qualities for conversation, and even an innate dignity of manner, would be completely shrouded from the common eye by the coarseness of his outward raiment; and that even those who could discover his excellence through the clouds which overshadowed it, would grant their applause with a mixture of regret, that an unnecessary and rude disguise should exclude the person by whom it had been incautiously adopted, from the society in which he was fitted by nature to occupy the highest place. We have only to add, that if any one be disposed to question the rank which we think it our duty to ascribe to Mr. Southey amongst his contemporaries, we beg them, before condemning our judgement, to read attentively the meeting of the Bards, in the eleventh section of the first part of Madoc, or the procession in honour of the River Goddess in the twelfth section of the second part. It is in such passages that the felicity and richness of the author's imagination display themselves, and at once obliterate all recollection of his errors. If, on the other hand, we are accused of having judged harshly of an author for whose genius we have so much reverence, we will rather submit to the censure than gratify vulgar malignity, by pointing the occasions on which he his flown with a low and a flagging wing: — were it indeed in our power, and were we as well convinced of the justice of our own criticism, as we are conscious of its sincerity and good faith, we would willingly communicate to the public only our motives for admiration, and to the authors themselves our grounds of censure; that the former might learn what they ought to applaud, while the latter might be taught to merit that applause more amply.