1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 90-99.



We come now to the last of this great brotherhood of poets, and one of the most distinguished names that general literature has to boast of — Robert Southey. Like his brother bards, he was, in adolescence, an optimist — a dreamer, like them, of golden dreams; but, with him, these died away before the strengthening sun of his intellect, like the deceitful exhalations of the morning.

Coleridge was unfitted for the encounter of social life, alike by temperament and circumstances. Wordsworth repudiated it from choice, and from its incompatibility with the plan he had charted out for himself. Southey, on the contrary, would have been a remarkable man in whatever he turned his attention to, let it have been law, physic, or divinity, the accountant's desk or the merchant's wharf, the pen or the sword. His enterprise, like his industry, was boundless; his self-appreciation was justly high; his spirits were exuberantly elastic, his courage indomitable. To himself he was the hardest of taskmasters; and he was not contented, like Coleridge, with merely meditating great things, but uniformly carried them through, compelling himself to a more than Egyptian bondage — for it was from year to year, and every day, and all day long, and to the end of his life. Yet, with a noble feeling of independence and self-respect, he submitted to this cheerfully, thinking less about the completion of a quarto than most authors do of a pamphlet. Hour after hour had its allotted task, continuously, unendingly. History, antiquities, bibliography, translation, criticism, tale, poem, political economy, statistics, polemics, almost every department of knowledge received emblazon from his able, ready, versatile, and unwearied pen. His finest phase, however, was as a poet; and we have now to glance at his chief works — Joan of Arc, Thalaba, Madoc, Kehama, and Roderick. Totally independent of these, his lesser poems alone would have afforded ample materials for a substantial and enduring reputation to any other less ambitious writer.

In the earlier productions of Southey, he showed himself a poet of vivid imagination, ardent feeling, descriptive power, but uncertain taste; and all this was proved as much in his choice of subjects as in his manner of treating them. There was evidently too much writing from the mere impulse of the moment, without regard to what preceded, or was likely to follow a mixture of baldness and mellowness; in short, a want of unity in the masses which made up his groups and landscapes. We are often haunted with a feeling of mismanagement, of misdirection, or carelessness; for he worked out whatever materials were before him, or most easily accessible. When his fancy was at fault he called in his reading, and thus made a compound of invention and remembrance; and hence it is that his poetical enthusiasm occasionally savours less of inspiration than rhetoric. Both Dr. Johnson and Helvetius believed that an able man could write well at any time, if he only set doggedly about it — and they might have added on any subject, for Southey would have afforded an excellent illustration. But there can be little doubt, I think, that even Southey would have achieved much higher things had he been less self-complacent, and written with more elaboration.

Southey shone in the paths of gentle meditation and philosophic reflection; but his chief strength lay in description, where he had few equals. It was there that he revelled and rioted in the exuberant energy of his spirit — a devoted worshipper of nature. Akenside describes a landscape as it affects the fancy; Cowper as it impresses the feelings; Southey daguerreotypes the landscape itself. Coleridge descants on the waving of a leaf; Southey on its colour and configuration. Wordsworth delights in out-flowing sentiment; Southey in picturesque outline. His capacious mind may be likened to a variegated continent, one region of which is damp with fogs, rough with rocks, barren and unprofitable; the other bright with glorious sunshine, valleys of rich luxuriance, and forests of perennial verdure.

Notwithstanding the wildness, the irregularity, the monstrosity of Southey's Arabian and Hindoo romances, they possess a fascination, a power, and a beauty, which could only have been imparted by the touch of genius. If, occasionally, we miss the polish of high art, we have always the freshness of nature and its variety. Thalaba is in himself an exquisite creation — beautiful in youth, ardent in affection, staunch in virtue, heroic in courage, combining feminine sensibility of heart with more than chivalrous daring. His biography is outlined to us from the days of his innocent childhood, when he took delight to

Launch his aimless arrow high in air,
Lost in the blue of heaven,

until his heart, in adolescence, ripens with a full harvest of love for "Oneiza, his own Arabian maid."

She called him brother! was it sister love
Which made the silver rings
Bound her smooth ankles and her tawny arms
Shine daily brightened? For a brother's eye
Were her long fingers tinged,
As when she trimmed the lamp,
And through the veins and delicate skin
The light shone rosy? That the darkened lids
Gave yet a softer lustre to her eye?
That with such pride she tricked
Her glossy tresses, and on holiday
Wreathed the red flower crown around
Their waves of glossy jot?
How happily the years
Of Thalaba went by!

We behold him, in the generous fever of his spirit, leaving in faith all he loved, to accomplish a mysterious plan of retribution and we follow him in his wanderings, now by gorgeous groves, and now through the burning sands of the desert; now we see him lying beside his camel at the welcome fountain, under the long light hanging boughs of the acacia, sky and plain on all sides bounding the horizon and now, far off; the ruins of old Babylon loom duskily between him and the sunset.

A night of darkness and of storms!
Into the chambers of the tomb
Thalaba led the old man,
To roof him from the rain.
A night of storms! the wind
Swept through the moonless sky,
And moaned among the pillared sepulchres;
And, in the pauses of its sweep,
They heard the heavy rain
Beat on the monument above.
In silence, on Oneiza's grave,
The father and the husband sate.

At one time we see him buoyant with hope in the ultimate success of his mission and now we follow him from the banquet-room, while he gazes on the stars, and feels himself "a lonely being, far from all he loved."

Thalaba is wild and wonderful; Kehama fantastic and monstrous. Thalaba is more varied and imaginative; Kehama is more gorgeously and grotesquely magnificent. Kailyal is a beautiful creation, and almost rivals Oneiza in interest. While Ladurlad is under a curse, which for ever banishes sleep from his eyelids, and water from his lips, a guardian spell protects Thalaba from the spirits of evil. But poetic justice ultimately saves both. Ladurlad is rescued from torment, and wafted up in The Ship of Heaven, to meet his family in The Bower of Bliss. Thalaba dies in the arms of victory and at the gates of Paradise, "Oneiza receives his soul."

Few things have been written by human pen more perfectly beautiful, than the meeting of Ladurlad with his wife and daughter in the mansions of the Blest, and which thus concludes:—

—He knew,
Though brightened with angelic grace,
His own Yedillian's earthly face;
He ran and held her to his breast.
Oh joy above all joys of heaven!
By death alone to others given,
That moment hath to him restored
The early lest, the long deplored.

The apostrophe which follows, commencing, "They sin who tell us love can die," although it must be fresh in the memory of very many present, I cannot resist quoting:—

They sin who tell us love can die
With life all other passions fly,
All others are but vanity.
In heaven Ambition cannot dwell,
Nor Avarice in the vaults of hell:
Earthly these passions of the earth,
They perish where they have their birth;
But Love is indestructible.
Its holy flame for ever burneth;
From Heaven it came, to Heaven returneth;
Too oft on earth a troubled guest,
At times deceived, at times opprest,
It here is tried and purified,
Then hath in Heaven its perfect rest:
It soweth here with toil and care,
But the harvest-time of Love is there.
O when a mother meets on high
The babe she lost in infancy,
Hath she not then, for pains and fears,
The day of woe, the watchful night,
For all her sorrow, all her tears,
An over-payment of delight?

Praise almost equally high may be given to many other descriptive portions of the poem, and to several of the dramatic — as the Midnight Procession, the apparition of Arvalan's embodied spirit, the picture of the Watchman on the tower at twilight, and of the Enchantress — which, however, strikes me as being more in the style of German than of Oriental exaggeration.

Madoc, although too lengthy, and not very artistically put together, also abounds in admirable passages, — passages as fine, especially in descriptions of external nature, as any Southey has ever written. The incidental episodes, more especially that of Caradoc, and Prince Hoel's Lay of Love — the music of which seems to have rung in the ear of Tennyson throughout an exquisite song in his Princess, — are among the most interesting portions of the work. Madoc's voyage is the finest sea-piece in the English language; and although in it he subjects himself to be brought into comparison with the prince of Roman poets, in the sea-wanderings of Aeneas to to Latium, he can scarcely be said to be found wanting in the balance.

What a fine commentary on the hearty old song, "Ye gentlemen of England, who sit at home at ease," are the following impressive lines:—

'Tis pleasant, by the cheerful hearth, to hear
Of tempests, and the dangers of the deep,
And pause at times, and feel that we are safe;
Then listen to the perilous tale again,
And, with an eager and suspended soul,
Woo Terror to delight us: — but to hear
The roaring of the raging elements—
To know all human skill, all human strength
Avail not — to look round, and only see
The mountain-wave, incumbent with its weight
Of bursting waters o'er the reeling bark—
O God! this is indeed a dreadful thing
And he who hath endured the horror, once,
Of such an hour, doth never hear the storm
Howl round his home, but he remembers it,
And thinks upon the suffering mariner!

But of all Southey's great poems, Roderick is assuredly the best, and must ever keep its place among the first-class productions of the age. It was the achievement of his matured genius and is, throughout, more consistent and sustained than Thalaba, Madoc, or Kehama. Hence it is, perhaps, that its beauties stand less prominently forward from the general text; but they are more in number, and higher in excellence, than those of his other works. Roderick himself is admirably portrayed, — bowed down with the burden of personal guilt and grief, yet burning to avenge the insults and injuries heaped on his devoted country. He is like a fallen constellation, yet bright with the traces of original glory — like a castle in ruins, breathing in stern decay of foregone magnificence. The conflict between varying passions, anxiety to restore the liberties of his country, and the consciousness of self-abasement, produces a compound which is the moving power — the lever of his character and Southey has managed this with great dramatic skill. The meeting with Florinda, the recognition of Roderick by his dog Theron, the battle-scene in which he fails, and the concluding passage — referring to the mystery regarding his place of sepulture — are among the most striking incidents of this great work, and vindicate Southey's claim to be regarded as a master of the lyre. Joan of Arc was less a thing of performance than promise, and may be likened to a young field of rich wheat overrun with poppies. The Pilgrimage to Waterloo is but the poet's journal cleverly versified; some of the stanzas are very beautiful. Of his ballads and minor poems, the finest are Lord William — finer stanzas he never wrote; Mary the Maid of the Inn — vigorous, but occasionally in bad taste; Queen Orrica; The Victory; Youth and Age; Elegy on a favourite Dog; and The Holly Tree.

Southey's mind was exuberantly fertile, like a tropic soil, and brought forth at once a plentiful crop of wheat and tares — of flowers and weeds. He was too self-satisfied to be a judicious farmer — if we are to pursue the simile — and let them all grow unchecked together. His intellect was more remarkable for scope than vigour; and, in his delineations of character, we have less of intuition than strict observation; but his situations are not only varied, but often eminently original. In dramatic power he was far before Byron; and perhaps Southey was the only man of our age — although some believe that Campbell, in the hey-day of his genius, might have done so — who could have enriched our literature with a tragedy worthy of standing, at least, on the same shelf with Otway's Venice Preserved, and Home's Douglas; for as to Shakspeare, I mention him not at all. He stands apart from and above compare; and we may as well expect a second deluge as a second Macbeth, or King Lear, or Hamlet, or Othello. Many of Southey's portraitures are beautiful in outline, but deficient in passion; they have almost the classic coldness of sculpture. Not so his landscapes, which are always true to nature, and glow with vitality, varying from the dewy dawns of Claude to the magnificent evening twilights of Salvator Rosa. Almost every page of Southey's writings holds out a subject for the painter. The following is an autumn sketch from Madoc.

There was not, on that day, a speck to stain
The azure heaven; the blessed sun alone,
In unapproachable divinity,
Careered, rejoicing in the fields of light.
How beautiful, beneath the bright blue sky
The billows heave! one glowing green expanse,
Save where, along the line of bending shore,
Such hue is thrown, as when the peacock's neck
Assumes its proudest tint of amethyst,
Embathed in emerald glory all the flocks
Of Ocean are abroad; like floating foam
The sea-gulls rise and fall upon the waves;
With long protruded neck, the cormorants
Wing their far flight aloft, and round and round
The plovers wheel, and give their note of joy.
It was a day that sent into the heart
A summer feeling; even the insect swarms
From the dark nooks and coverts issued forth,
To sport through one day of existence more.
The solitary primrose on the bank
Seemed now as if it had no cause to mourn
Its bleak autumnal birth; the rocks and shores,
The forests, and the everlasting hills,
Smiled in the joyful sunshine: they partook
The universal blessing.