1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Southey

Isaac Clark Pray, "English Bards: Robert Southey" Prose and Verse, from the Port Folio of an Editor (1836) 60-64.



The laureate of England, Robert Southey, by his poetical writings, has obtained a considerable degree of praise as a man of genius; and for his political conduct and opinions, a more than equivalent quantity of censure. His political tenets we shall dismiss from consideration, by remarking, that at the commencement of his career, he was a stern and powerful advocate for the principles of unlimited freedom, and was the leader of those visionaries who formed an imaginary state in America, planned on these principles. For several years past, however, he has proceeded on his course, entirely contrary to those opinions in which he was formerly a mad enthusiast. Whether this most remarkable abandonment has resulted from discouragement, or from a candid belief of the futility of such doctrines, we cannot pretend to decide; nor would it be our province to do so, if we were able.

In our notice of Coleridge, we said, that there is no one who stands out in so conspicuous a light as he, Southey excepted. In making that remark, we did not intend even to hint that there is a similarity in the construction of their minds. Coleridge is conspicuous for his singularity and boldness of thought, for the deep working of his mind, and for his metaphysical subleties; Southey, on the other hand, is conspicuous for boldness of fancy, both in conceiving and describing. He reminds us of an old master of painting, with a brilliant imagination, placing on the canvas, fresh, vivid and glowing colors; — striving not solely to represent scenes as found in nature, but endeavoring to create something prettier, or more attractive, or if possible, more startling; — occasionally, however, producing scenes which exhibit much truth in the delineation.

He struggles for boldness and originality, but often rises into extravagance; like an ambitious, though ignorant actor, who strives to explain anew, or impress upon the mind more powerfully, some favorite passage in an old dramatist. The mass of readers, Southey can never please. He is too turgid and bombastic; and we may perhaps be allowed to say that he uses too many hard words. We have heard of some persons studying the lexicon for such knowledge, and we should suppose Southey one of these very same expert dictionary-hunters. There is a vast deal in his poetical compositions, which is nothing but sound — mere rhetoric, sometimes so artfully interwoven, that one at first might suppose he discovers gems, when he sees nothing but polished glass. His poetical writings, in invention and description, are essentially dramatic. Tinsel; rough paintings, looking well at, a distance; the wild and wonderful lurid and vivid flames; bustle and incident, are the most striking characteristics of the larger pieces of his composition.

He is evidently a great admirer of Milton. In some passages and descriptions, he has attempted by an unlucky ambition, to describe, with that felicity which so characterizes the writings of the immortal bard, the appearance of the World of Woe. These descriptions, however, do not rise into that grandeur which pervades the conceptions and delineations of Milton, — they are palpably affected and catachrestical. One great, and indeed the greatest fault — the foundation of a multitude of others — is the apparent desire to combine fancy, sublimity, and other powerful qualities, in one poem; thereby rendering it, as a whole, exceedingly mixed, confused, and repulsive. He is the only living poet, of the present age, to whose eye may emphatically be applied the sentiment, glancing from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. He grasps at every thing which tends to allure, and, in spite of reality, creates startling and even painful pictures. Yet, with all his extravagancies, with all his wildness of thought, and wonder-working invention, he never forgets — intentionally at least — that the great object of poetry is to impress on the attention of readers the pleasures and benefits of morality and religion. Concerning the prose works of Southey we have little to say, except that they exhibit splendid specimens of English composition. Taking his prose and poetry together, we find that he has endeavored to do too much; — on this account he has heaped before the public mass of matter, which is little better than useless lumber. He forgets, as it seems, that a man is generally best known by a single work, and that too by a very short one. He seems to imagine that he wall be immortal on account of his size — not for his peculiar excellence. How disappointed must he be even now, in his expectations! There is not one of his poems, which is noted more than another; and although he is so excessively voluminous, there are many persons of tolerable information, who, if asked, could not tell whether he writes most like himself, or like Pope.

We have thus far considered Southey's writings, judging from prominent faults. Were we to dismiss this article without giving him some credit, it might appear that we write with prejudice. Not so; on the contrary we have often regretted, and very seriously too, that one who has displayed such remarkable powers of invention should be so deficient in other most important requisites. In picturing the severer passions, he displays an intimate knowledge of the heart. Descriptions are introduced in his poem of Roderick, which of themselves would stamp him as the master genius of the age. The conflicting passions — their power and effect — are thrown into a seeming existence, and 'the most intense interest often enchains one for a comparatively long time. Still the poem is unequal, and unfitted for readers in general. The passages, as passages, and choice extracts, are often eminently elegant and sublime; but there is not one person in a thousand who would read through the poem — these passages, therefore, are not discovered; consequently his fame as a poet must be much restricted. Perhaps if he had written only the stanzas "To the Holly Tree" — about fifty lines — he would have acquired as much real fame as he has from writing half a million of verses.

The Curse of Kehama is a work of considerable power, arising perhaps principally from the interest existing in respect to all mythology, and particularly to that singular system peculiar to the Hindoos. This poem, if we recollect aright, is in rhyme, and the measure is similar to the studied Pindarics of Cowley. It contains passages which would be extremely beautiful, finished and elegant, were it not that something or other arises, in the shape of a note, three or four pages in length, by way of explanation. The Curse of Kehama is replete with the usual extravagancies of the author; indeed, the foundation of the poem, the Hindoo mythology, is all extravagance. These extravagances, however, are not quite so ridiculous as many which may be found in that most ridiculous of all poems of the present age, namely, The Vision of Judgment. Madoc is another tremendous poem, full of human adventures and natural difficulties, This poem, too, has its machinery, and on the whole is superior to the Kehama — and that, perhaps, is not saying a great deal. Joan of Arc, in respect to its machinery, is preferable to the last mentioned; but we should very much question whether it cost half the labor of either of the other two.

Several other poetical works ought perhaps to be particularly noticed here; but we forbear, and would refer our readers who are desirous of obtaining a more discriminate knowledge, of his works, to them, and also to the British Reviews. Nevertheless, it may be well to caution every one against trusting too much to the reviews in the London Quarterly. The articles which there notice Southey's works, are the most uncritical and flattering notices we ever perused; and the smooth, unbroken vein of adulation coursing through nearly all of them, disgrace the Review, their authors, and the laureate himself.

Southey has been classed among the Lake Poets, and rightly, too; — indeed, he was at the head of them in the dream, called "Pantisocracy" — that famous scheme for political regeneration. However, his writings prove that which we asserted in our notice of Wordsworth, namely, that Lake Poetry does not consist so much in the matter as in the manner. Metaphysical subtlety is not the foundation of it; — if so, Southey should never haves been classed among the Lakers, for he does not meddle with the operations of the mind, but with the virtues of the heart. Southey, as a poet, can never be immortal, but will be known best by the place he fills in the library. His talents may be acknowledged; but it will be mere passive praise which speaks of him; he will live perhaps for a while, but will be esteemed rather as a man of effort, than of genius.