1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (26 October 1833) 718-19.



There are poets whose genius is not confined to verse, but who, after reaching almost to the summit of Parnassus, descend and travel into the wide domains of history, and gain a name in the cause of truth, rivalling their fame in fiction. Robert Southey is of these, and one of the most distinguished. He was born in the parish of Christ Church, Bristol, in the year 1774: his parents were of such substance as to be able to give him an excellent education: he was some time in Westminster School, where he gained a name for being both stirring in play and quick in his lessons: what he acquired in Westminster, he took with him to the University: but he did not remain long there. He gave in his adhesion to the muses early, and courted public notice in a succession of poems of an epic stamp, which raised him high in the ranks of inspiration. Joan of Arc was written before he was twenty-one years old: the preface is dated November 1795: in all the history of our poetry, we have no poem of that high order — containing such truly heroic and deeply pathetic passages, written by one so youthful. In those days — when the bard was young and ardent, and before reflection and the world had sobered down his notions, he was smitten with the theories of the revolutionists in France, and rejoiced in their promises of equality in all matters save genius. In this he went hand in hand with almost all the nation, for who did not rejoice to see a doting tyranny trampled to dust, and a hope of liberty held out for enslaved millions? But soon after he published his first epic, Southey beheld the Goddess of Freedom metamorphosed into the Demon of Conquest, and the citizens of France marching to the subjugation of free states, with a chief whose war-cry was universal dominion. The poet turned from the French — not from freedom — and lent his aid to his own land, then menaced by the "Friends of the People," with right good-will. This very natural line of conduct has raised a hue and cry of political heresy against him, which is often renewed. Byron was one of the bitterest of his foes; and has left traces of his unamiable spirit in too many places of his works.

To the Joan of Arc, succeeded Thalaba, an Arabian poem, with much of the wonderful and wild, but more of the natural and heroic; the introduction — more brief than common with Southey — is dated Cintra, October 1800. The irregular measure in which it is written, he looks on as the Arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale, and says truly, that the dullest reader cannot distort it into discord. It is, indeed, musical,

How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air;
No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,
Breaks the serene of heaven:
In full orbed glory, younger moon divine
Rolls through the dark blue depths;
Beneath her steady ray
The desert circle spreads,
Like the round ocean girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is night!

The poem relates the fortunes of the heroic orphan Thalaba, who, by the aid of virtue, and love, and courage, triumphs over spiritual as well as material enemies. It is a moving story — for, of all our poets, Southey has the truest pathos.

Madoc, which appeared in 1805, is a poem founded on a Welsh tradition, that in the twelfth century one of the Princes of Wales led a band of adventurers in search of a more hospitable land than their own, and formed a settlement in America. "Strong evidence," says the poet, "has been adduced, that he reached America, and that his posterity exist there to this day, on the southern branches of the Missouri." That the country has since been explored, and no Welsh Indians found, makes nothing against the beauty of the poem. The narrative is in blank verse, "the noblest measure," says the poet in the preface to Thalaba, "in my judgment, of which our admirable language is capable." Of this fine measure, he has here and elsewhere shown himself a great master. To the regular Madoc, succeeded the wilder Kehama, a tale of the Hindoos; emblazoning the superstitious beliefs, and impulses, and feelings, and manners of that singular people. It was printed, I think, in the year 1809; the story relates the triumph of the powerful and wicked, through the means of prayer and a curse, over the beautiful and pure, till time and penance remove the charm, and truth and virtue prevail. The measure is irregular — sometimes with and without rhyme; but always harmonious and pleasing to the ear: nor are the attractions of fancy and sensibility wanting. The character of young Neallinay, and the detail of her sufferings, are full of tenderness and pathos — of gentleness and the exquisite simplicity of nature. It is altogether a magnificent fiction, and though its machinery and manners were strange to the public ear, it was well received, and went through various editions.

With Roderick the Last of the Goths, Southey resolved, it seems, to bid farewell to national and historical fiction: it is the last of his greater poems; and though not in matters of fancy and imagination the highest, is considered, and I think justly, not only as the most touching of his productions, but the most affecting and heroic poem of modern times. It has the pathos of sentiment and of situation, and is written in vigorous and massive blank verse, and in such manly and racy English, as few bards of these our latter days can approach. Of this, the flight of Roderick may serve as a specimen of what is impressed on every page of the poem:—

From the throng
He turned aside, unable to endure
This burthen of the general woe: nor walls,
Nor towers, nor mountain fastnesses he sought:
A firmer hold his spirit yearned to find,
A rock of surer strength. Unknowing where,
Straight through the the wild he hastened all the day,
And with unslackened speed was travelling still,
When evening gathered round. Seven days from morn
Till night he travelled thus: the forest oaks,
The fig-grove by the fearful husbandman
Forsaken to the spoiler: and the vines,
Where fox and household dog together now
Fed on the vintage, gave him food: the hand
Of heaven was on him, and the agony
Which wrought within, supplied a strength beyond
The natural force of man.

Roderick escaped, in the poet's song, from the fatal field in which he lost his crown to the Moors; sought, by a life of mortification and repentance, to appease offended Heaven, and finally appeared as a stranger warrior in the ranks of his own army, turned the tide of battle by his valour, and having saved the country he had injured, departed, and was seen no more. In the minor poems of Southey there is great and various merit; some are of joyous, others of a satiric nature: the former have tender passages amid their mirth, and the latter are discerning and sarcastic, wear an air of simplicity and sincerity, and pass the objects of their invective or their scorn under the "saws and harrows of iron," with such readiness and force as rank the author high among the sons of satiric song.

Southey has the great merit of being original in his compositions, in his subjects, and in the structure of his verse; he is ever equable, clear and flowing — his matter always ready, imagery at command, and so earnest and possessed with his themes, as never, for a moment, to cease to interest us. His thoughts are generally just and noble; he is a lover of mercy, an admirer of whatever is generous and heroic. His poems have survived the sternest and most unmitigated criticism; against him, as against Wordsworth, critics bent their sharpest shafts, and, for a time, appeared to daunt, disconcert and oppress him; because his song was unlike that of other men, he was treated with all this contumely; his fault was his merit; had he sung as others have done, he might have sung pleasingly and with effect: but he gave way to his own emotions, and, at the risk of critical martyrdom, established himself as an original, who copied but from his own heart and conceptions. His life has been laborious and exemplary; he is one of our most fruitful and successful writers; his biographies and histories are considered by many superior to his poems; his mind overflows with all kinds of knowledge. He lives at Keswick, in as retired a way as his high fame will allow, and few travellers of any taste visit the Lakes without desiring to see the poet of Thalaba, the biographer of Nelson, or the historian of Brazil.