1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. Mr. Southey" The Champion (15 January 1814) 23.



It is not my intention, in the proposed series of portraits, to give any detailed criticism of the works of the respective authors who shall in succession be exhibited: the magnitude of such an undertaking would justly alarm the breakfast readers of a Sunday journal, who have only to snatch their knowledge between the intervals of their tea and toast. To remind them of some striking and favourite features in a well-known author, must at such a season be far more grateful than the most accurate delineation of all his qualities: and indeed at any time the sketch of a master-hand will present a more discriminate and faithful likeness than the most elaborate finish of an inferior artist. A few glancing and expressive sentences from SCALIGER or JOHNSON are worth whole libraries of French commentators.

I begin with Mr. SOUTHEY, not from any opinion that he is the first poet, but because, taken altogether, he is the greatest poetical curiosity of the day. Mr. WORDSWORTH is a person calculated, on many accounts, to make common men stare, being at once exalted far beyond the reach of ordinary intellect, and delighting in his pride of mental power to trample down all customary prepossessions and codes of taste: Mr. COLERIDGE, with his unwieldy metaphysics and his mysterious tenderness, excites also quite as much surprize as any man above the rank of a juggler can reasonably wish: — but all this is nothing to the puzzling peculiarities of Mr. SOUTHEY. One hardly knows to which point our admiration should be first directed, for he seems determined to outdo every every author, good or bad, in his own peculiar way. The man who left behind him manuscripts sufficient to build a funeral pile, is no longer a fable, for Mr. SOUTHEY, with an emulous spirit, has already written as much as BLACKMORE, and will, no doubt, if he live, out-number even the myriad compositions of LOPE DE VEGA. This fondness for emptying his mind of all its images before they have been arranged and polished in that sacred repository, may be considered as the great leading fault of this communicative writer. He always appeared to me to be a man whose knowledge is a burthen to him till he finds an opportunity to divulge it: he is like one of those gossiping young gentlemen who, after visiting a party of rank or talent, the next day run about the town to retail all the anecdotes and bon-mots which it was their happiness to hear. His writings seem to bear a direct proportion to the quality of his reading; and in one sense this is as it ought to be. A mechanic cannot work without tools: the materials of a writer are thoughts and images: a self-created thought or an innate image are great absurdities in the very terms: and therefore recourse must be had to the constant observation of external nature, to profound and vigilant attention over all the internal feelings and dispositions, and lastly, to a perfect acquaintance with the different treasures collected by different authors, for the same general purpose of increasing and dignifying the pleasures of the understanding. To make a complete writer, all three causes must combine: but this unison is rare, and can scarcely be predicated of half a dozen men in any country. — Of those not so entirely accomplished, it will always be found, that the acute observer and deep thinker is not only the most original, but the most wise and elevated writer; while the great reader, with perhaps more taste, will in general be little else but an imitator, or a copyist.

To apply this to Mr. SOUTHEY; his book-devouring habits almost preclude any application towards acquiring knowledge from the fresh springs of nature herself: to the same habits may be ascribed that want of thinking, that lameness of intellect, so evident in all his writings, and which must ever be expected where a man, either from insensibility or indolence, accommodates himself with subservient credulity to the different systems of fancy or taste, which from time to time arrest his attention. Mr. SOUTHEY'S mind is so far from being superior to his reading, that in almost every book which he has written, we may trace the style of thinking, the modes of expression, the fabric of imagery, and even the moral feeling, to some favourite authors, whose works have been the primary and the immediate cause of his own writing on the same subject. It is usual, even with the opponents of Mr. SOUTHEY, to give him credit for each fancy: in my opinion, this boon is undeserved. His writings indeed, abound with striking pictures, some beautiful, though most are merely fantastic: but he no more deserves the praise of imagination on that account, than the collector of the paintings of RAPHAEL, CORREGIO, WATTEAU, or BERGHEM, is entitled to be called a grateful and inventive artist. It may seem a presumptuous assertion, but I hazard it with perfect confidence in its truth, that scarcely one image, either deformed or elegant, is to be found in Mr. SOUTHEY'S poems, which is not almost a transcript from some other work. He scarcely ever takes the trouble to re-dress or combine in new forms the ideas which he borrows: he is content with transferring them, without mutilation, as without improvement, into his own depository. After all, it should be confessed, that if I am able to speak in this manner of this poet, it his own candour which enables me so to do. Indeed, there never was a writer with less of the impostor about him than this gentleman; — though perhaps there never was one who has such abundant means to surprize and overwhelm with wonder all common readers. His reading is so extensive and desultory, that, unless he had himself given us the clue, it would be frequently impossible even for a second STEEVENS to track his steps: but he has himself generously developed to us all the sources which have supplied him with the materials for his poetic quartos. Such magnanimity is as usual with authors, that one cannot help suspecting that Mr. SOUTHEY prefers the praise of great reading to the dignity of an inventor. He has done himself some injury by this frankness; without it, many a pleasing picture might have passed for his own; even his enchanting Glendower might have been considered as a creation of his own brain, had he not referred us to Peter Wilkins, a book which, though nearly forgot, is full of amiable fancies, and contains the loveliest portraiture of female gentleness which has appeared since the drama of SHAKSPEARE. I never take up a poem of Mr. SOUTHEY, without wishing that his knowledge of books was not half so extensive, and that he would reflect, with double intensity, on the materials which he has already collected. What can be more provoking than to see such a man quoting whole pages of stupid Spanish ballads, or borrowing thoughts from Desmarets or Chapelin. Thank heaven he is yet unacquainted with the oriental languages; but should he ever attain such knowledge, we shall see him, like another Sir W. JONES, subduing his fine mind to the admiration of their tame fustian, and filling his next three epics with images taken from the BLACKMORES and COTTLES of Hindostan. I should think that man the friend of Mr. SOUTHEY, who should advise him, even now, to burn half his library, and all his poems, — to think intensely for a few years, and then to apply all his concentrated powers to one great work. I will not affront his understanding by comparing him with Milton, but I think that, under such circumstances, he might writer a poem "which the world would not willingly let die."

I have been more particular on this slavish book-propensity, because it is the besetting sin which taints all Mr. SOUTHEY'S excellencies; it is this which prevents him from thinking, it is this which leaves him no time for feeling; and was there ever yet a remembered poet without reflection and pathos? He is now and then affectionate; or, to speak more accurately, is mild and gentle; but as to the passions of the man, whether the tender or the energetic, he is as totally ignorant as if he did not belong to the human species. His Conrads and Theodores, his Thalabas and Zeinabs, his Arvalens and Laduslads, his Madors and Hepolemans, are all characters which might have been conceived and filled up (I mean as far as the knowledge of the human mind is concerned) as well by a school-boy of fourteen, as by a grown man of forty.

It is usual to call Mr. SOUTHEY one of the school of WORDSWORTH: this always appeared to me a great mistake. Nothing can be more decidedly contrasted than the intellectual character of these two gentlemen. It is true that, in his earlier poems, Mr. SOUTHEY, influenced by all the spell of a superior, has been anxious to display some of those childish whimsicalities which Mr. WORDSWORTH, in some of his sillier "moods of mind" has thought proper to advocate; but the larger works of Mr. S. bear little, if any, of this peculiarity. His bent is quite another way; he is fond of extravagance, and the less fanciful exaggerations of chivalrous chroniclers; he doats to distraction on tinsel and gew-gaw, loves gold and gems like a Rosicrusian, and finds his faculties almost absorbed at the contemplation of a dead man walking, or a King of Hell who keeps a one-wheeled car. Besides this, he is perpetually subdued by his subject, instead of having an easy mastery over it; and his diction is, in his more laboured passages, perhaps, the most verbose, shewy, pompous, and even gorgeous in the English language. How then can he be said to be a disciple of WORDSWORTH? What resemblance can be found between the feebleness of Mr. SOUTHEY, never stirring without his books, and the powerful grasp of WORDSWORTH'S intellect: — between the superficial fluency of the former and the deep majestic thinking of the latter: between the unimpassioned bustle and noisy declamation of Thalaba and Kehema, and that intense feeling which dictated some of those immortal odes and sonnets, the author of which might justly say of himself that his thoughts "often be too deep for tears." But I shall take another opportunity of expressing my admiration of Mr. WORDSWORTH, together with my contempt of his absurdities.

Mr. SOUTHEY is so far from being wedded to any system, that almost every poem is in a different style. His Joan of Arc, which though a hasty production, was certainly a work of great promise, was written after the good old model of MILTON and the ancient epic poets. On the score of poetic taste, its great fault is the absurd book-pedantry which it displays, especially on the subject of military fortifications. Its most disgusting trait is the want of patriotism which has degraded all the English heroes to exalt the French favourites, all of whom are of course the very mirrors of chivalry. Henry the 5th is a fellow only fit to be put in Tartarus, and the gallant Talbot is a mere scarecrow, while Dunois and Conrad, who go about breaking heads with huge battle-axes, are the mildest and sweetest of men, and pensive gentlemen to boot. Thalaba came next: and here Mr. Southey's models seem to have been the old English ballads, and some of the worst of the Arabian tales — neither of them contemptible, but neither quite as good as MILTON and HOMER. Madoc followed, and notwithstanding its occasional insipidity, is an amiable poem, modelled after the very amiable mind of its author, or if any other origin be sought, it may be called no mean imitation of the gentle manners and pleasing descriptions of the Odyssey. Kehema is a mixture of the two former: it has much of the softness of Madoc, and much of the wildness of Thalaba, but it is a true eloquent romance, and hurries one along with more rapidity than any other work of its author; thereby incontestably evincing the greater power of genius, with which it is written.

I have run through this hasty sketch of his different poems, just to shew that they are by no means formed after the model of the Wordsworth school: I should be sorry to have it supposed that I consider so cursory a view as sufficient for the examination of those elaborate compositions.

Upon the whole, my admiration of Mr. Southey far exceeds my dislike: his works will make mankind wiser and better: they are replete with information, full of liberal sentiments, and breathing every where a spirit of gentleness, benevolence, and peace. I only regret that a man who has the means of so much utility in his power, should have weakened his influence in society by adoption of unpopular and extravagant fictions, and by his eccentric and affected style of communicating his ideas. Had HOMER written about Egyptian sphinxes, instead of adorning the traditions of Greece: had VIRGIL been the magician which late writers made him, and written about metallic caverns and the philosopher's stone, instead of celebrating the glory of his countrymen: had MILTON, instead of a poem sublimely pious, which accorded with the feelings of his puritanic age, and the taste of his reflecting fellow-citizens, written an epic in praise of France — they must all have been content with that obscurity which I think will for ever envelop Thalaba and Joan of Arc.