1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

B., "Of the Modern Poets — Mr. Southey" The Literary Gazette (26 April 1817) 210-11.



If Mr. Campbell has held so tight a rein over his Pegasus, as to prevent it from soaring above a hillock or a pine-tree, Mr. Southey has given such unreasonable scope to his poetical "Ship of Heaven," that it sails over infinite space, without once casting anchor, or is tost about in an ocean of mystical inutility. After reading Thalaba, or the Curse of Kehama, one lays down the volume with an inevitable feeling of, "Very sublimated, no doubt, but what does it all mean? where is its object?" One retains an impression of nothing but blank verse of all sizes, from three syllables to twelve; of one Veshnoo, with whose mythology we are quite unacquainted; of one Ladurlad, whom air must not touch on any account, and who yet respires freely enough through his lungs; and of Braman, and Indra and Yamen, and Glendoveers, about whose powers and attributes we care not one farthing. As to sympathy, it is totally out of the question; and of magnificent language, we have more than sufficient.

If Mr. Campbell does not astonish us in this superhuman manner, at least he leads us through scenes with whose nature we are familiar, and for whose inhabitants we feel some regard. Though his primroses and violets are purchased in the Cranbourn Alley of Parnassus, and appear a manufacture of painted gauze, yet still they remind us of real primroses; and, indeed, some of them are real. Mr. Campbell's farthest flight is America: but Mr. Southey hurries us up at once into the third heaven; we fly about among stars that do not belong to our proper hemisphere; we are dazzled, blinded, bewildered; and when at last we descend from our aeronautic excursion, we are happy to repose upon the aftergrass of Rogers, or to beg a ticken-bed at one of Crabbe's sea-faring huts.

After these animadversions, I must not allow it to be supposed, that I consider Mr. Southey's poetry as utterly worthless. On the contrary, I think it of a very superior order; capable, if modified and terrestrialized, of adding no inconsiderable star to the great poetical constellation which shines upon the present age. Amongst much hyperbolical thought and expression, we are sometimes agreeably surprised by the unexpected appearance of pictures, which our hearts acknowledge, and which strike us at once with the strongest emotions of sublitnity. I remember, in our language, three fine passages on the drawing of swords. Burke is the author of one. In speaking of Marie Antoinette, he says,"I thought ten thousand swords would have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that offered her an insult." Milton gives us the following sublime conception:

He spake, and to confirm his words, out flew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined hell.

And Mr. Southey, with more sublimity than the former, and not much less than the latter, has this passage. The Rajah having ordered his troops to assassinate a multitude who had offended him,

Ten thousand scymetars at once upreared,
Flash up, like waters sparkling to the sun,
A second time the fatal brands appeared,
Lifted aloft — they glittered then no more;
Their light was gone, their splendour quenched in gore.

Perhaps in the whole compass of modern poetry, there is not a more splendid picture. Lord Byron approaches somewhat near it, when he describes Alp's bare arm during the battle.

Alp is but known by the white arm bare.

Look thro' the thick of the fight — 'tis there.

As we are about erecting an architectural monument to the memory of Waterloo, I think we might convoke a congress of our poets, to compound amongst them a poetical monument. To Lord Byron might be allotted that part which should describe the feelings of both armies before and after the battle, and its effects upon the moral world in general. Mr. Scott should be endowed with a limited power of rehearsing the names of the leaders, their dresses, their genealogy, and the foaming bits of their steeds. Both these bards should mash up the battle itself between them. Mr. Campbell might give us a pathetic episode of a young lady who had arrived just time enough to stop, by the interposition of her own heart, a bullet that was going on very fairly towards her lover's. If any immortal gods were deemed necessary, I would, by all means, recommend Mr. Southey to the mythological department. Mr. Crabbe might be furnished with lint and ligaments, and a wardrobe of the Dutch women's costumes, in which case he could do wonders in describing the care taken of the wounded; to say nothing of some episode respecting a tall pathetic Lifeguardsman and his Dutch Dulcinea. I think I would permit Mr. Rogers to insert three lines about the birth and parentage of a tear; Messrs. Coleridge and Wordsworth should describe the unsophisticated death of an aid-de-camp's horse; and to Mr. Moore I would adjudge the most arduous task of all — namely, to erase, correct, and insert, as his classical taste might lead him; in which case, much of Scott, some of Lord Byron, a little of Campbell, the essence of Southey's four thousand lines, making about as many hundred, — might be retained; but Heaven knows whether a single line of the remaining members of the congress would remain! By the help of all this pruning, the structure might indeed be made immortal.