1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Horace Smith, in "A Graybeard's Gossip about his Literary Contemporaries" New Monthly Magazine 81 (December 1847) 423-24.



We passed the following evening at his house, the conversation generally taking a literary turn, and though I cannot recall its particular subjects, I remember to have brought away with me an impression — perhaps an erroneous, perhaps a presumptuous one — that he betrayed occasionally more party spirit than was quite becoming. If I had not been too diffident, in such a presence, to disclose my own opinions, he might, perhaps, have reciprocated the thought. Old age has taught me to abjure all dogmatism; to distrust my own sentiments; to respect those of others wherever they are sincerely entertained. That so good, so kind-hearted a man as Southey should write with so much acrimony, not to say bitterness, whenever he became subject to a political or religious bias, has excited surprise in many persons who did not reflect that his residence in a remote country town, surrounded by a little coterie of admirers, whose ready and submissive aspect confirmed him in all his prejudices and bigotted notions, must have had a perpetual tendency to arrest his mind and to prevent its moving forward with the general march of intellect and liberality. As a public writer, for such might he be deemed from his intimate connexion with the Quarterly Review, he should have resided inn the metropolis. I have already noticed the injurious effect of a long expatriation upon manners; and though Southey never left England, his self-banishment from London imparted a degree of rigid austerity to his mind, and literally accounted for its want of urbanity. Wordsworth, all whose sympathies are with nature, rather than with towered cities and the busy haunts of men, is in his proper element among lakes and mountains; but a critic and a writer, whose business it is "to catch the manners living as they rise," should always reside in a capital city.

Southey made another and a still more unfortunate mistake when he appropriated to himself the device of "in labore quies" — when he maintained and acted upon the theory, that change of mental labour is equivalent to rest, and that if he alternated between history, poetry, and criticism, he would not require any relaxation or repose. For any man this would have been a perilous error, but for one whose sequestered life, however charming might have been his domestic circle, admitted little other social enjoyment and allowed hardly any varieties of amusement, a long course of such monotonous labour could not fail to prove doubly hazardous. But a few more years had been thus passed when the whole sympathising world had occasion to deplore the truly melancholy results produced by this unmitigated over-exertion of the intellectual faculties; when, to use the words of his widow, the fiat had gone forth, and "all was in the dust!"