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Title: Robert Southey

Creators: Walt Whitman, Anonymous

Annotation Date: After 1847

Base Document Citation: Anonymous, "Robert Southey," American Whig Review (February 1851).

Whitman Archive ID: mid.00007

Source: Middlebury College Library, Special Collections. Clipping on final page appeared in Scientific American, 25 September 1847; here it is pasted on a February 1851 essay on Robert Southey from the American Whig Review. Transcribed from our digital images of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the marginalia and annotations, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Lauren Grewe and Matt Cohen


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1851.Robert Southey.157

(☟This is a very finely done criticism.)

Southey born 1774


THERE is a species of even-handed justice attending literary men, which generally makes all straight in the end; the old axiom of "Extremes meet" seems to govern this rule, and in proportion as an author is abased by some, he is lauded by others, not only personally but poetically. There are, of course, the usual exceptions,—some one way, as Walter Scott,—some the other, as in the case of Southey; but action and reaction is a principle of nature.

We doubt if there ever were a writer so fiercely vilified as the author of "Wat Tyler," who had so little of the pleasanter side of praise administered to him in his lifetime, notwithstanding his influence and position. There has not even been the usual re-action when the grave has consecrated his virtues, and obliterated his failings; indeed, so far as we may be allowed to judge from present appearances, he seems already shrinking into the very narrow compass of his "Life of Nelson," and the poem he repudiated, "Wat Tyler!" That posterity may reverse this decision is possible, although, taking the past as a guide, not probable. The two causes which deprived him of enthusiastic eulogizers during his life, will operate, we think, even more conclusively as the circle expands, and deposit him on the bleak shore of respectability, leaving him farther removed from human sympathy as the tide of time recedes.

The causes we allude to are, his want of high or distinctive genius, and moral geniality. In the greatest imaginations these are generally found together, as in Homer, Ariosto, Shakspeare, and Cervantes. Some cases, however, exist in which they are separated, as in Dante and Milton; but possibly in both these latter instances political and domestic sorrows, as well as the severe temper of the times, may have had a modifying, if not an altogether deviating influence upon them, which if not exercised would have left them as jovial fellows as Anacreon himself.

That Southey was altogether deficient in that logical and creative phrenzy (if we may like Willis or Emerson coin on our own account) which our great Anglo-Saxon poet calls "a fine phrenzy"—(we advisedly say our, for Shakspeare as much belongs to the American people as he does to the English, seeing that our ancestors claimed him as a fellow-citizen) —that Southey was deficient in this godlike faculty is evident to any who has read all or even any of his voluminous poems; that he was destitute of bonhomie was as equally apparent to a casual acquaintance, or an old friend.

He had no impulse. In a word, we may define him as the Genius of Routine; that was the only genius he possessed. In saying this let our readers clearly understand that we neither undervalue nor disparage Southey, or the regularity of which he was so striking an example; we merely define what he really was, just as a mathematician means no insult to a triangle when he says it is not a circle. Indeed, to borrow a geometrical term, Southey was eminently an angular mind: he did not incorporate in his own nature the knowledge he was constantly acquiring; he merely added it to what he already had. Knowledge made Southey learned, it made Shakspeare wise; it enabled the one to alter and illustrate, the other to create and beautify; it enriched the nature of the one, but only the recollection of the other. Knowledge made the author of Hamlet philosophical and imaginative; it rendered the writer of Thalaba prolix and fanciful; it was a telescope and a microscope to Shakspeare, a mere pair of colored spectacles to Southey. We repeat, that in selecting the greatest of poets for this parallel, we have no wish to depreciate, but simply to take the highest of each class, in order to render the contrast more striking.

Robert Southey, working out his own original nature honestly, is entitled to as much respect as William Shakspeare: for

*The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, LL.D. Edited by his son, Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey. New-York: Harper & Brothers.

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158Robert Southey.Feb.

this we have the incontrovertible evidence of Holy Writ, as illustrated by the parable of the talents. We shall not even condemn him for his remarkable change of opinion in religion and politics: for this also he had the precedence of a sacred example in St. Paul so far as the right of search and change is concerned; but he had no authority for his malignant persecution of those who continued to hold the same opinions as he had once entertained. Surely, this ought to have counselled charity; but it is a singular proof of human blindness, that men never hate themselves for their former heresies! Let us, therefore, set an example of charity ourselves, and suggest that it is merely the opinions they hate, after all, and not the men.

We remember Sergeant Talfourd used this argumentum ad hominem with great effect on a trial for rioting at Gloucester. Baron Gurney, a very able but severe judge, who presided, had been, during the French Revolution, one of the Jacobin Club in London notorious for its anarchical principles. This was well known to Talfourd, who defended the rebels, and who was so irritated at the judge's undue leaning against the prisoners, that in the defence he begged "his lordship would reflect if in his own experience he did not remember any one who had formerly been an ardent admirer and correspondent of Robespierre and Marat; one who was also a member of a club, whose toasts were such as, 'The heart of a king grilled on the ribs of his minister;' and whether he was not now one of the most distinguished ornaments of the bench; and what would have been his fate had no time been given to him to repent, and repay the society he had outraged," &c. This had so great an effect, that in his charge the conscience-struck Gurney directed the jury to acquit them, with only a severe reprimand.

Men should bear in mind that uniformity of opinion would soon become a dead level of intellect. Indeed, what diversity of scenery is to the picturesque, variety of mind is to the intellectual world. If all men thought alike, human nature would soon become a putrefaction of bigotry—a dead sea of idiocy. Heresy seems to be the gastric juice of the human race. The first utterance of a new doctrine is considered an offense; but in time it becomes the standard of faith, and, forgetful of its own youthful struggles and sufferings, assumes in its old age the persecutor. Thus, strangely as it may sound, the blasphemy of one age becomes the religion of the next; opinions like billows roll on, one after the other, swallowing each other, or harmoniously subsiding into the vast ocean of Truth.

We have thought it necessary to make these preliminary remarks in order that our readers may the better comprehend our view of Southey, and his aspect of society. It will however be advisable to glance hastily at his intimates and contemporaries before we fairly enter upon his own particular life and correspondence. These were undoubtedly some of the most remarkable men the world of genius has produced; we shall however confine ourselves to those most immediately acting upon his conduct and opinions.

Coleridge, Lloyd, and Lovell were those who were his first intellectual associates; after a time, Wordsworth, Lamb, and Cottle were added. All these were men of a peculiar stamp, some of the highest powers. The greatest was undoubtedly Coleridge, not only for his attainments, imagination, and enthusiasm, but also on account of the eloquence with which he advocated any system he adopted; even his inconsistency gave a poetical charm to his conduct! Ever the slave of impulse, but preserved from vice by one of the most gorgeous, and, at the same time, subtle imaginations vouchsafed to a human being, the author of Christabel was at once a giant and a child. While his comprehensive and logical mind detected at a glance the most plausible sophism of another, he was constantly bewildered in those of his own creation; his silken clue inevitably failed him in the labyrinth of his own planning; he was no Daniel in the den of his own lions! Coleridge was to himself throughout his life, what the Spectre was to the hero of one of Calderon's plays, the name of which we forget: he always found himself opposed and overthrown by himself. Like a silk-worm he lived in a world of his own spinning, and which was destined eventually to be his shroud. We have little hesitation in stating that we do not believe there has ever been an instance of a man of equal genius so entirely giving himself up to such flimsy delusions and sophisms as Coleridge did from his very boyhood. Lamb defined him exactly

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when he called him "the Inspired Christ School Boy." He never outgrew his gigantic boyhood. Fresh from the trammels of school, he longed to plant idylls and eclogues on the banks of the Susquehanna, of which he was to be one of the piping Corydons, with some young Phillis fond of throwing love-apples at him, and listening to his strains, and always giving the award in his favor. A variety of causes combined gave a similar tendency to the more practical mind of Southey. But a fortunate want of money saved them from this egregious folly; for there never were two men less fitted for emigration to a new world than they were.

Love, poverty, a vague aspiration for liberty, and a restlessness, which Southey finally conquered, were the motives which led him to entertain the Pantisocratic scheme. It is a mistake to suppose Wordsworth ever for an instant was mixed up in this Utopian dream; indeed, the bare suspicion annoyed him so much, that on the publication of Chorley's "Authors of England" in 1842, the old poet requested the writer of this article to beg Mr. Chorley would correct the mistake he had made in his life of Coleridge, where Wordsworth figures as one of the emigrant party.

The head and front of this "Empire Plan" was really Lovell; but a practical view of the whole question dissipated the chimera.

Both Lloyd and Lovell were singular beings. The former was evidently tinged with insanity even at that early period; towards his middle age it showed itself so unmistakably that he was placed in a Lunatic Asylum, where he spent most of his remaining years; he was eventually killed in endeavoring to escape from one in France, no many years ago. In addition to being a lunatic, he was also a poet, and he had the honor of helping Coleridge and Southey to fill up their first volume of poems published at Bristol by their friend Cottle. Insanity and poetry are hereditary in Lloyd's family, for his eldest son, who is a scholar, a Christian, a man of fortune, and an elegant poet, has been for some years under partial restraint. We know him well, and have heard from him the statements we have just made, and confirmed by others.

Lovell was Coleridge and Southey's brother- in-law, the three having married the three Misses Fricker. Strange enough that insanity should also develop itself in these ladies. Edith, Mrs. Southey, died insane after lingering in that state some years, and Mrs. Coleridge has acted so strangely through all her life as to cause considerable apprehension in her friends' minds for the ultimate result.

Wordsworth's influence on Southey was small, notwithstanding the respect which he entertained for the great philosophical poet. This partly arose from their not coming together at Southey's plastic age; for like hot lava, Southey hardened very soon. This is curiously developed in the correspondence now before us; he seems at once to spring from Pantisocracy to common sense, in the commonest acceptation of the term. By-the- bye, while we think of it, we may ask the accomplished and conscientious editor why he has omitted a letter from his father to Coleridge respecting the latter's disinclination to marry Miss Sarah Fricker? It was written in reply to one from Coleridge, "in which he stated very weighty reasons why he should not marry just then, but leaving it to Southey to decide whether he thought he was bound in honor to fulfil his engagement immediately." Southey's answer was lengthy and decisive, and determined Coleridge at once to marry, among difficulties amply illustrated in Cottle's "Recollections," and from which we question if he ever thoroughly emerged. The Gillmans, of Highgate, have a copy of this interesting epistle. It would throw a little light upon the state of Coleridge's heart, which might perhaps clear up the darkness which now apparently hangs over his long separation from his "besonneted Sara!"

It is only due to the departed poet's memory to remember that his children, Hartley, Derwent, and Sara, were to the last most affectionately attached to their father, at the same time not forgetting their duty to their mother. This is a volume in Coleridge's favor more conclusive than any he has written himself; for no such three children, perhaps, ever came together, either for intellect, conscientiousness, or rectitude.

After this little sketching, let us introduce the hero of the present drama.

Southey thus records his own birth:— "My birthday was Friday, 12th August, 1774; the time, half-past eight in the morning, according to the family Bible. According to my astrological friend Gilbert, it was a few minutes before the half hour,

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pleasure. Moore has very happily expressed this retrospection:

"Sighing, as o'er the shadowy past,
Like a tomb-searcher, Memory ran
Lifting the shroud that Time had cast
O'er buried hopes."

We now and then come upon pithy axioms, such as—(Southey is talking of his schoolmaster): "When his ill circumstances pressed upon him, he gave way perhaps more readily to impulses of anger; because anger, like drunkenness, suspends the sense of care, and an irascible emotion is felt as a relief from painful thoughts." This is however only half the case: anger is an excitement, and consequently suspends the duller sense of care, or any other equable state of mind; but Southey forgets, or perhaps never knew, that the real cause of the phenomenon is the weakness of mind, resulting from the irritation of the mosquito bites of buzzing animals, who very properly sting sleeping debtors till they wake and pay.

We have however, a few passages further on, a proof of how little a learned man is a wise-one. "He would strike with a ruler sometimes when his patience was greatly provoked by that incorrigible stupidity which of all things, perhaps, puts patience to the severest trial."

Let us tell our readers that of the three, the blockhead, the master, and the apologist, the most incorrigible fools are the schoolmaster for striking, and the Laureate for defending the blow. Mr. Southey's joke, too, about punishing a creole, is a proof of his want of humor. We will not quote the joke, having no wish "to throw a damp upon a funeral."

We have, however, a most serious charge against the author of Kehama, and one of his own convicting: we quote verbatim his very words:—

"One of them (evidently by his name of French extraction) was, however, the most thoroughly fiendish human being that I have ever known. There is an image in Kehama, drawn from my recollection of the devilish malignity which used sometimes to glow in his dark eyes, though I could not there give the likeness in its whole force, for his countenance used to darken with the blackness of his passion. Happily for the slaves on the family estate, he, though a second brother, was wealthy enough to settle in England; and an anecdote which I heard of him when he was about thirty years of age, will show that I have not spoken of his character too strongly. When he was shooting one day, his dog committed some fault. He would have shot him for this upon the spot, if his companion had not turned his gun aside, and, as he supposed, succeeded in appeasing him; but, when the sport was over, to the horror of that companion, (who related the story to me,) he took up a large stone and knocked out tbu dog's brains. I have mentioned this wretch, who might otherwise have better been forgotten, for a charitable reason; because I verily believe that his wickedness was truly an original, innate, constitutional sin, and just as much a family disease as gout or scrofula. I think so, because be had a nephew who was placed as a pupil with King, the surgeon at Clifton, and in whom at first sight, I recognized a physiognomy which I hope can be long to no other breed. His nephew answered in all respects to the relationship, and to the character which nature had written in every lineament of his face. He ran a short career of knavery, profligacy, and crimes, which led him into a prison, and there he died by his own hand."

The commonest observer must remark the tender difference with which he treats the reputation of a living rich man, to the dead memory of the poor dependent. Farther on we have another phase of character: our space, however, will not allow us to quote; we must therefore content ourselves by requesting our reader's attention to Southey's account of his interview with an old schoolfellow, whom he designates under the initials H. O. They will find it at the close of chapter xii. We question if a more singular confession of feeling was ever before so ingenuously given to the world.

There are many naÏve admissions in his autobiography, which, for a man of the Laureate's caution, strike us as remarkable. In some very pertinent remarks on poetry he observes: "In the earliest ages, certain it is that they who possessed that gift of speech which enabled them to clothe ready thoughts in measured or elevated language, were held to be inspired. False oracles were delivered in verse, and true prophecies delivered in poetry.* * * Sleight of hand passed for magic in the dark ages, sleight of tongue for inspiration." We can well imagine how such a heretical or dangerous opinion in the writings of another would have drawn down his anathema as a "Quarterly Reviewer."

From the Welshman Southey was removed to a day school at Bristol, kept by a clergyman, who was a good classical scholar; under his direction our poet commenced "Greek and nonsense verses." This was in


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168Robert Southey.Feb.

in health, and full of renewed plans, taking up their residence at Bristol.

Towards the close of this year he obtained, through Mr. Wynn's untiring friendship, the appointment of private secretary to Mr. Corry, Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland, at a salary of £400 per annum. He was however only required a short time in Dublin; on his return he was steadily settled at London as Mr. Corry's secretary. In the meantime he had published "Thalaba," the copyright of which he sold for £115. In January, 1802, his mother died: this was a heavy blow, as Robert Southey was a man full of domestic feelings.

Finding his office to be a sinecure, he, with an honesty which ought to be more generally followed, resigned his secretaryship, and resolved to settle in the country. After casting "his eyes" about him, he fixed upon the Lakes of Westmoreland, to which his friend Coleridge had already retired. In September, 1803, immediately after the death of his only child, a little girl of scarcely a year old, they settled at Greta Hall. He had already made the acquaintance of the Longmans, and received several commissions from them, which afterwards led to a connection, closed only by the Laureate's death. Southey had now reached his thirtieth year, and had settled down in a spot from which he never after removed, to devote his energies to a purely literary life: perhaps we have no other instance of a man so completely following up that one idea without reference to anything else, as the distinguished man whose life we are reviewing.

His industry was the most untiring of any author's of modern times. In March, 1804, he thus wrote to his friend John Rickman:—"I have more in hand than Bonaparte, or Marquis Wellesley—digesting Gothic Law; gleaning moral history from monkish Legends; conquering India, or rather Asia, with Albuquerque; filling up the chinks of the day by hunting in Jesuit Chronicles, and compiling Collectanea Hispanica et Gothica. Meantime Madoc sleeps, and my lucre of-gain-compilation (specimens of English Poets) goes on at night, when I am fairly obliged to lay history aside, because it perplexes me in my dreams. 'Tis a vile thing to be pestered in sleep with all the books in the day I have been reading jostled together!"

In the May of 1804 he visited London, and met some new society. He however was not a very "clubbable fellow," as Johnson would phrase it. He was soon at his home at Keswick again, in the midst of his books, &c.

He had now made considerable headway in his History of Brazil, and looked forward to another sojourn in Portugal to finish it. Coleridge had been now for some time at Malta, as secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, and Southey's letters to him are full of hints, which afterwards ripened into works— Coleridge had always great theories to propound, and was a most suggestive companion and correspondent, as Southey and Wordsworth often acknowledged.

We pause at this point of the Laureate's life to call the reader's attention, not alone to the singular change in his political and religious opinions, but also in his habits of daily life. From the wild enthusiast he becomes tamed town to the orthodox disciplinarian; from the dreamer of Pantisocracy he suddenly awakes to the realities of L.s.d.-ism; from the Lesbian heights of Pindarics' epics, and Sapphics, he leaps into the level sea of Routine!

But we must reserve the moral we have to deduce from this singular harlequinade to our next number.


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This Scotch Poet was born in 175[illegible] 9 .—Though a ploughman originally, he rose to high poetical fame. He has been called the greatest untaught genius since Shakspeare. His poems glow with the real fire of feeling and passion. As soon as he appeared in print he was noticed and drawn from the plough to associate with men of letters and opulence. But the change ruined him. He indulged in licentious pleasures, till his constitution gave way, and the tomb received him. He died at the age of 39.

In his poems, Burns was faithful to lowly things, customs, idioms, Scotland, the lasses, the peasan[illegible] and to his own robust natu[illegible] He was ^ often hard up, an improvident, free handed man—his poems succeeded— he made £500, an immense sum.— He took a farm, was appointed exciseman— (£75 a year)—lived two or three years in that way, drank, sickened, died.—


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