1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Anonymous, in "The Augustan Age in England" The Album 1 (1822) 217-19.



Mr. SOUTHEY is the other great name of the Lake school; and as if to shew that the bathos is totally bottomless, and that even Christabel can be outdone, he, last year, gave us the Vision of Judgment. We scarcely ever remember to have seen a piece of more contemptible impertinence, than this soi-disant poem. The Lakers in general, and Mr. Southey in particular, are notorious for the most disgusting system of self-praise; and the Vision of Judgment displays it in a very eminent degree. In the first place, it tells us half a dozen of times that Mr. Southey is the inventor of English hexameters: we beg to assure him that he is no such thing; — not that we regard it as a thing to be vain of, for we look upon them as mere pedantry; — but Mr. Southey is vain of it — and, as usual, his vanity has no sort of foundation. Next, according to his custom, he claims a monopoly of all virtue, genius, and wisdom, for himself and the few friends to whom he distributes a small share of them respectively: all those who have, in any way, incurred his displeasure are sent to pass "an eternal moment or so in hell:" while the friends aforesaid, and — "risum teneatis" — Mr. Southey himself are borne to regions of eternal bliss! And this mummery, clothed in the fantastic frippery of English hexameters, is seriously put forth in the nineteenth century by a poet laureate, who affects to revive the lost dignity of the office! Why, Eusden and Cibber would have been ashamed of this. Of Mr. Southey's epics it is scarcely fair to speak; they are so long since dead and gone, that even, the remembrance of them is almost faded. "Where's Nicholas Vedder?" said Rip Van Winkle. "Oh! he's dead and gone these eighteen years," answered a little old man, with a thin piping voice; "there used to be a wooden tomb-stone in the church-yard that told all about him; but that's rotted, and gone too." Thus has it fared with Mr. Southey's epics: — Joan of Arc, Madoc, and even Thalaba have long disappeared from the world, save in the vicinity of Grasmere — where, we are credibly informed, the worthy laureate keeps all his ponderous manuscripts, handsomely bound, for his own private edification. These works have passed through the gulf of oblivion, and even their wake has closed behind them. We admit that Roderick is a superior poem to all these that it has many passages of solemnity and grandeur, and here and there possesses considerable poetical beauty. But it has all Mr. Southey's usual faults — irrepressible verbosity, extreme and tedious length, and a heaviness over the whole, which makes it quite a task to wade through it, even for the beauties with which you are repaid. If Mr. Southey had never written any thing but this and Kehama, his name would have stood deservedly high; as it is, these works of real merit are overlooked among the multitudinous absurdities of the laureate odes, and the leadenness of the departed epics. As a prose writer, Mr. Southey is correct and common-place; — he has little melody in his verses, and still less in his prose style. He is somewhat unfortunate, too, in his choice of subjects. Who does he think is to read through three gigantic quartos on the Brazils? We are free to admit, however, that the Life of Nelson is a valuable work. But what adds greatly to Mr. Southey's defects is that outrageous egotism to which we have alluded. That sort of thing will scarcely pass, even from persons of the most transcendent genius; and we can assure Mr. Southey that he is, by no means, of a class which authorizes these impertinences. This is a hard word; but what else can we call the never-failing "Envoy," which is always appended to his books in some shape or other, and tells us that he is the first of all poets, dead or alive, and that his works cannot fail to go down to the latest posterity? We shall conclude our remarks on Mr. Southey by the following admirable description of him, which we met with in a pamphlet which lately fell under our handy: "It is quite evident that he thinks himself Milton, and Thucydides, and Clarendon, and Dryden, and Jeffrey, and Plato, and Torn Moore, and Burke — all in one."