Robert Southey

Henry Taylor, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:155-64.

In the year 1837, two years before his brain softened and his mind went to ruin, Southey superintended a collective edition of his poems in ten volumes.

Of his five narrative poems, Joan of Arc, written at nineteen years of age (1793-94), was in his own just estimation, the least worthy to succeed; and yet it gave him what he calls a "Baxter's shove into his right place in the world."

Thalaba came next; "the wild and wondrous song;" delightful in its kind, as a Tale of the Arabian Nights is delightful; but wanting, as all stories in which supernatural agencies play a leading part must be, in one sort of charm, — that which results from a sense of art exercised in the fulfilment of a law. For when the law of Nature is set aside, the poet's fancy may "wander at its own sweet will."

To a poem thus lawless in its incidents and accidents, Southey thought that a rythmic structure of blank verse almost equally lawless was appropriate. He does not deny that regular blank verse is superior; he says of it in one of his prefaces, — "Take it in all its gradations, from the elaborate rhythm of Milton, down to its loosest structure in the early dramatists, I believe there is no measure comparable to it, either in our own or in any other language, for might, and majesty, and flexibility and compass." But for Thalaba he prefers a blank verse of his own, in which the decasyllabic rule is renounced, and the lines, following a spontaneous melody, divide themselves into every variety of length, with the ordinary iambic cadence interrupted from time to time by some trochaic or dactylic movement, springing up as a pleasant surprise:—

Years of his youth, how rapidly ye fled
In that beloved solitude!
Is the morn fair and doth the freshening breeze
Flow with cool current o'er his cheek?
Lo! underneath the broad-leaved sycamore
With lids half closed he lies,
Dreaming of days to come.
His dog beside him in mute blandishment
Now licks his listless hand;
Now lifts an anxious and expectant eye,
Courting the wonted caress.
Book IlI. 17.

Southey in his school-days at Westminster had conceived the design of founding a poem on each of the more important mythologies known to the world. Thalaba was founded on the Mahometan; and Kehama followed, founded on the Hindoo. For Kehama he had less expectation of success, inasmuch as it rambles farther still beyond the range of human sympathies. It had an advantage, however, of which he seems to have been unconscious, — that of being in rhyme. This he valued by its cost to himself, which was apparently next to nothing; he says in a letter to me that "rhyme suggests more thoughts than it baulks;" but it is to rhyme probably that the greater success of Kehama was owing.

In the one poem, as well as in the other, though we are carried far and wide into other worlds than this, we meet from time to time with some penetrating insight into human life and nature as it exists here below:—

Be of good heart, and may thy sleep be sweet.
Ladurlad said; ... Alas! that cannot be
To one whose days are days of misery.
How often did she stretch her hands to greet
Ereenia, rescued in the dreams of night!
How oft, amid the vision of delight,
Fear in her heart all is not as it seems;
Then from unsettled slumber start, and hear
The winds that moan above, the waves below!
Thou hast been called, oh Sleep! the friend of Woe,
But 'tis the happy who have called thee so.
XV. 12.

Kehama was begun in 1801-2, resumed in 1806, and completed in 1809. Madoc had been written before Kehama was begun; but mistaking it in those days for the greatest poem he should ever write, he laid it aside till he should have time to reconstruct and in great part to rewrite it; and it was not published till 1805. It has the merit of a varied melody and an easy, fluent and graceful narrative diction; but of his long poems it was the least successful.

Roderick was the most so. Perhaps the moral grandeur of the theme may have given it that preeminence, as much as its tragic interests. The subjugation, for a season, of a whole people, resulting from a single and momentary sin of the passions, — what may be charitably called a casualty of sin, — on the part of an otherwise virtuous sovereign, — the slaughter of the Christians by the Moors in the eight days' fight on the banks of Chrysus, — the unknown and almost unwilling escape of the King when the battle was over, — his deep remorse and self-inflicted penance of years in a solitary hermitage whilst supposed to have been killed, — the dream in which his mother appeared to him and bade him to go forth and deliver his country from the Moors, — his departure and encounter with Adosinda, sole survivor of the massacre of Auria, — her story and the passion for revenge, both personal and patriotic, with which it inspired him, — are all sublimely conceived and admirably told. Scarcely less so are his adventures when, wasted by austerities and in the habit of a priest, he passed through the country on his mission, meeting many old friends, but known for the man he was only by his dog, — his ultimate triumph over the Moors in the battle in which, on the inadvertent utterance of his once familiar war-cry, he was enthusiastically recognised by his army, — and thereupon his instant disappearance, whither no one knew, till, after the lapse of some centuries, a humble tomb was discovered within a hermitage in the neighbourhood of Viseu with his name inscribed upon it.

In the versification Southey has availed himself with singular skill of names belonging to three languages, Spanish, Moorish and Gothic, to vary his rhythmic effects. English itself is a language derived from divers roots, and therefore, if competently dealt with, the more capable of composite and contrasted melodies. But auxiliaries from even one alien tongue may do excellent service, as Milton well knew when he sounded his roll-call of devils in the first book of Paradise Lost. The concluding lines of the passage which follows will exemplify the advantage taken by Southey of Spanish names in Roderick:—

So saying Adosinda left the King
Alone amid the ruins. There he stood,
As when Elisha, on the further bank
Of Jordan, saw that elder prophet mount
The fiery chariot, and the steeds of fire,
Trampling the whirlwind, bear him up the sky:
Thus gazing after her did Roderick stand;
And as the immortal Tishbite left behind
His mantle and prophetic powers, even so
Had her inspiring presence left infused
The spirit which she breathed. Gazing he stood
As at a Heavenly visitation there
Vouchsafed in mercy to himself and Spain:
And when the heroic mourner from his sight
Had passed away, still reverential awe
Held him suspended there and motionless.
Then, turning from the ghastly scene of death,
Up murmuring Lona, he began toward
The holy Bierzo his obedient way.
Sil's ample stream he crossed, where thro' the vale
Of Orras, from that sacred land it bears
The whole collected waters; northward then,
Skirting the heights of Aguiar, he reached
That consecrated pile amid the wild
Which sainted Fructoso in his zeal
Reared to St. Felix, on Visonia's banks.
Roderick, IV.

The picturesque element enters largely into Roderick; and in poems of such length, descriptions of natural scenery are invaluable as resting-places. Rest from action and passion, — rest even from intellectual effort, — cannot be dispensed with after prolonged strains in one or another mood of emotion or exaltation; nor is it to be obtained in any better way than by occupying the mind's eye with natural beauty and the mind's ear with the gentle melodies by which it is most aptly accompanied. This exercise of art is nowhere more conspicuous than in Roderick.

Of minor poems Southey wrote many more than he had any desire to write. And how he came to write them is easily explained. In his first youth he says he "often walked the streets for want of a dinner, not having eighteen pence for the ordinary nor bread and cheese at his lodgings." After twenty-one years of age he had a family to provide for, as well as certain relatives whom he could not allow to suffer from penury, though some of them may have deserved so to suffer. In 1835, when he was sixty-one years of age, he writes to Sir R. Peel (in a letter declining the offer of a baronetcy, "Last year for the first time in my life I was provided with a year's expenditure beforehand." Under such circumstances, much as it may have been his desire to write only from impulse and aspiration, it was his duty to write for money too. In his earlier years minor poems were marketable; a large proportion of his ballads and metrical tales were written for the Morning Post at a guinea a week; and when they were republished in a book, it was still for money, and with the motto, "Nos haec novimus esse nihil." There was no humiliation in this, and he knew that there was none. When he found his means again failing in 1807, he writes that, if necessary, he will seek more review employment, write in more magazines, and scribble verses for the newspapers; adding, "as long as I can keep half my time for labours worthy of myself and of posterity I shall not feel debased by sacrificing the other, however unworthily it may be employed." And the fact is that, laborious and exuberant as he was from first to last, the great works which he was always longing and preparing, and in his sanguine heart hoping, to accomplish, — the history of Portugal, the history of English Literature, and the history of the Monastic Orders, — were postponed again and again and for ever.

As time passed on, his poetry, whether written for the market or not, became less saleable; and in 1820 he writes to Landor, — "My poems hang on hand. I want no monitor to tell me it is time to leave off. I shall force myself to finish what I have begun, and then — good night. Had circumstances favoured I might have done more in this way, and better. But I have done enough to be remembered among poets, though my proper place will be among the historians, if I live to complete the works upon yonder shelves:" — which most unhappily he did not.

Every generation has a pet poet or two of its own; and the generation which had now arisen worshipped a Muse instinct with amorous or personal passion, — a Muse of a very different order from Southey's. His Clio, even in his first youth, had administered a scornful rebuke when he uttered a few words that seemed akin to sentimental softness:—

I spake, when Lo!
There stood before me in her majesty
Clio, the strong-eyed Muse. Upon her brow
Sate a calm anger. Go, young man, she cried,
Sigh among myrtle bowers, and let thy soul
Effuse itself in strains so sorrowful sweet,
That lovesick maids may weep upon thy page
Soothed with delicious sorrow.

That was not the way he went; but in his own way and in some of his poems — certainly in Roderick — passion, though governed and severe, and couchant, as it were, in the language of reserve, is by no means wanting; and how far it would be a mistake to assume that, because he was of a happy and cheerful temperament, he was a stranger to imaginative emotion, may be gathered from what he says of himself in a letter to Landor: — "You wonder that I can think of two poems at once. It proceeds from weakness, not from strength. I could not stand the continuous excitement which you have gone through in your tragedy: in me it would not work itself off in tears; the tears would flow while in the act of composition, and would leave behind a throbbing head and a whole system in the highest state of nervous exciteability, which would soon induce disease in one of its most fearful forms. From such a state I recovered in 1800 by going to Portugal and suddenly changing climate, occupation, and all internal objects; and I have kept it off since by a good intellectual regimen." How much reason he had to be careful was shown by the disease of the brain which followed his domestic calamities, and brought his literary life to a close at sixty-five years of age.

Of poetic passion then there was enough and to spare in his nature, though he took no pleasure in it, or none which he could afford to indulge. But along with this there was an imaginative vehemence and power partaking of passion, which, on one occasion at least, he did not care to keep within the bounds of his "intellectual regimen." He had a passionate hatred of Bonaparte, growing out of moral as well as political and patriotic feelings, and no doubt exasperated by the antagonism of those who fell down in worship before the wonders of his success. Wordsworth has told us,—

How an accursed thing it is to gaze
On prosperous tyrants with a dazzled eye,—

and on one of the two occasions on which Southey and Byron met, Bonaparte was spoken of; and when Byron gave some indications of the dazzled eye, Southey replied that Bonaparte was "a mean tyrant." But his meanness was by no means the worst part of him. Some of his political murders, secret or avowed, were regarded by Southey (justly, may it not be said?) as private and personal crimes for which it was right that, when circumstances rendered it possible, he should be made to answer with his life. He writes to Landor (9th March 1814), — "For five years I have been preaching the policy, the duty, the necessity, of declaring Bonaparte under the ban of human nature." These feelings and opinions gave birth to the Ode written during the Negotiations for Peace in 1814; and since Milton's immortal imprecation,—

Avenge, oh Lord, thy slaughtered Saints whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold....

there has been no occasional poem equal to it in grandeur and power. Nor any indeed equal to it in art; witness the expressive change of tone and temper when, at the fifth line of the third stanza, the denunciations are arrested for a few moments, and a vision arises of what the tyrant's career might have been had he chosen the better part.

Occasional poems on great public events are very rarely great poems. The facts are too strong for the imaginative effects, and take the place of them. But there is one other of Southey's, — that on the death of the Princess Charlotte, — with the grace and beauty of which no facts could compete.

Of the minor poems other than occasional, the varieties are too numerous to be even so much as indicated here; but some of them are examples of the humour, sometimes light and playful, sometimes grotesque, which was strongly characteristic of Southey. Humour is an element which cannot but widen the field of a poet's imagination, though it has been utterly wanting in some of our greatest poets, — in Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as in Milton. It is commonly and perhaps correctly said to be the gift of a gloomy rather than of a cheerful temperament; and no doubt the humour which breaks through the clouds is the most enlarging and enriching:—

The richest mirth, the richest sadness too,
Stands from a groundwork of its opposite;
For these extremes upon the way to meet
Take a wide sweep of Nature, gathering in
Harvests of sundry seasons.

This was not Southey's kind; but his had a charm of its own. Much of it belonged to his daily life, and it was often out of this that it found its way into his poetry. His life was a singular combination of gaiety with steady, industry and laborious research. Some trivial incident occurred, and his fireside was enlivened by verses like those which follow, almost conversational in their easy pleasantry:—

A golden medal was voted to me
By a certain Royal Society.
'Twas not a thing at which to scoff;
For fifty guineas were the cost thereof.
On the one side the head of the King you might see,
And on the other was Mercury.
But I was scant of worldly riches,
And moreover the Mercury had no breeches.
So, thinking of honour and utility too,
And having modesty also in view,
I sold the medal, — why should I not?
And with the money which for it I got
I purchased this silver coffee-pot;
Which I trust my son will preserve with care,
To be handed down from heir to heir.
These verses are engraven here,
That the truth of the matter may appear;
And I hope the Society will be so wise
As in future to dress their Mercuries.

As to the place and rank to be assigned to Southey amongst the poetic souls of our literature, the time has hardly yet arrived for forming a judgment. "Do not ask yourself," he says in a letter to Ebenezer Elliot, "what are the causes of the failure or success of your contemporaries; their failure or success is not determined yet; a generation, an age, a century, will not suffice to determine it." This is a truth to which past history will be found to testify. We read now with astonishment the opinion which Dryden, evidently conscious that he was flying in the face of prevailing sentiments, ventured to express, towards the end of the seventeenth century, about two poets who had written in the beginning of it: — "For my own part, I consider Shakespeare equal to Ben Jonson, if not superior."

Southey's belief in his own posthumous renown has led some persons to call him conceited. In his youth he was sanguine and presumptuous; in his after-life sanguine and confident; at no time of life was he ever vain. He took great delight in his own works. Why should he not? Wordsworth once spoke to me of the value he had himself attached to ethical poetry as possibly excessive, but not on that account to be found fault with; inasmuch as it had given encouragement and animation to his endeavours. Southey in a letter to Grosvenor Bedford (Feb. 12, 1809) says, — "Young lady never felt more desirous to see herself in a new ball-dress than I do to see my own performances in print.... There are a great many philosophical reasons for this fancy of mine, and one of the best of all reasons is, that I hold it good to make everything a pleasure which it is possible to make so." And in a letter to me (April 13, 1829) twenty years later, he illustrates the same principle by a story of a Spaniard he had known who "always put on his spectacles when he was about to eat cherries, that they might look the bigger and more tempting."

He was not in the habit of guarding himself against misconstruction. Except on rare occasions, — such as Lord Byron's invectives in the Press or those of Mr. W. Smith in the House of Commons, — he left his character to take care of itself. He had a high opinion, especially in his earlier years, of his powers. He believed too in the high and permanent place which some portion of his work would take in the literature of his country. Such expectations are probably indulged by many young poets who make no mention of it. As abstinence is easier than moderation, and egoism in soliloquy than outspoken egoism, so is it not seldom the refuge of the weak. And whether the aspirants be weak or strong, their aspirations are not ignoble, and their hopes make them happy. If they succeed, the world is the better; if they fail, it is no worse.

Whatever tendency to excess there may have been on Southey's part in the estimate of his own works will be found to prevail quite as much in his estimate of the works of his friends, or indeed of many other works, old and new, which he approved and admired. In a letter to me of Oct. 1829, he writes, — "A greater poet than Wordsworth there never has been nor ever will be." And if he expected for himself a larger measure of attention from posterity than may now seem likely to be accorded him, it should be remembered, that though as long as his mind lasted he "lived laborious days" for the sake of his family and of others whom, in the generosity of his heart, he helped to support, yet all the labours of all the days did not enable him to do more than make preparations for the three great works which it was the object and ambition of his life to accomplish.

Of what he did accomplish, a portion will not soon be forgotten. There were greater poets in his generation, and there were men of a deeper and more far-reaching philosophic faculty; but take him for all in all, — his ardent and genial piety, his moral strength, the magnitude and variety of his powers, the field which he covered in literature, and the beauty of his life, — it maybe said of him, justly and with no straining of the truth, that of all his contemporaries he was the greatest MAN.