Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by William Wallace
Robert Southey (1774–1843)
 
[Robert Southey was born in 1774 at Bristol, where his father was an unsuccessful linen draper. A maiden aunt, with whom he spent most of the days of his childhood, gave him an early bias to reading, and fed his imagination with stage plays, so that when he was sent to Westminster School, at the age of fourteen, his mind was already furnished with a quantity of miscellaneous knowledge, he had written a considerable quantity of verse, and had arrived at the conclusion that it was his mission to be an epic poet. Westminster gave him little—so at least he thought—but the friendship of C. W. W. Wynn, afterwards his indefatigable benefactor, and Grosvenor Bedford, who was his confidential friend for life. Southey wrote much for school magazines; at last an ironical article on flogging led to his private expulsion. Christ Church, Oxford, closed its doors against him, but Balliol received the youth who, as he says himself, “left Westminster in a perilous state—a heart full of poetry and feeling, a head full of Rousseau and Werther, and my religious principles shaken by Gibbon.” At Oxford he gained some notoriety by the profession of Republicanism, but apparently found no profit in the studies of the place, beyond learning to know Epictetus. He had not left the University when the fall of the Girondins, and the consequent horrors in Paris during 1793, wrecked the faith of the young Oxford Jacobin in the French Revolution. Coleridge came upon him thus robbed of his ideal, whispered “Pantisocracy” in his ear, and persuaded him to join a colony of equals—each provided with a mild and lovely woman—in America. The scheme fell through, but Southey married his chosen mild and lovely woman, Edith Pricker, while Coleridge paired off with her sister Sarah. Before choosing a profession, Southey went for a six months’ visit to his uncle Hill, who was chaplain to the British Factory at Lisbon, and was attracted at once by the literature of the Peninsula, to which he gave the best part of his life. Returning home, he found that there could be no profession for him but that of letters, and at the age of twenty-two was looking out for a permanent home in which to write. He was long in finding one. He spent six years between various habitations at home and on the Continent, writing epic poems and ballads—the latter at a guinea a week—for the Morning Post. At last, in 1803, he settled down in Greta Hall, Keswick, to a life of constant literary toil. Coleridge, who at first shared housekeeping with him, soon wandered off, and Southey was left for some time in charge of Mrs. Coleridge and her children, and of his wife’s other sister, Mrs. Lovell. From Greta Hall proceeded the majority of Southey’s well-nigh forgotten epics, and his most important prose works. He had enjoyed a civil list pension of £160 since 1807, up to which time his friend Wynn had allowed him a like sum out of his own pocket. In 1813 the Laureateship brought an addition of £90 a year to his income, and twenty-two years later Peel, on his declining a baronetcy, bestowed on him another pension of £300 a year. It was really on the Quarterly Review, however, that Southey lived from 1809 onwards. Writing for every number, he sometimes received as much as £100 for an article. This and other hack work gave him the time and opportunity to produce much solid and ineffectual literature which did not pay him, and has sunk into oblivion with the designedly ephemeral matter to which he grudged the labour that might have been bestowed on his History of Portugal. Southey’s mind gave way before his death, which took place in 1843.]  1
 
SOUTHEY is the stock example—though not necessarily the model—of a man of letters. He lived by and for literature. Coleridge styled Southey’s library his wife, and no spouse could desire greater tenderness or more steadfast devotion than he bestowed upon the books which covered the walls of almost every room in Greta Hall. He was a bibliophile in the widest sense of the word. Books that were worthy of fine binding he clothed handsomely; others were sometimes decently and sometimes gaily covered by his women folks, and made of one room a “Cottonian library.” But he was never so much of a lover of tall folios as Lamb, though, in his decadence, Wordsworth found him fondly handling the volumes he could no longer read. Books were in truth to Southey the raw material in which he exercised what can only be termed his book-making faculties. He bought as many as he could pay for, and as fast. Some were chosen to feed his intellect and please his palate; but most were destined to be delved into as rapidly as possible and forced to give up their treasures of information, which were classified, indexed, and shaped for use in the production of history, biography, or Quarterly article. A sentence in a letter to his son-in-law sums up Southey’s conception of the art of literature. “As for composition,” he says, “it has no difficulties for one who will ‘read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest,’ the materials on which he is to work.” Here we have his own estimate both of his style and of the genre of his work, and it is a fair one. He made books out of other books, and took no thought of the manner of writing save to put down the results of collation in the simplest mode that occurred to him. He is one of our classic prose writers. Yet he never sought the perfection which Byron (no friendly critic) allowed him to have attained. “Of what is called style, not a thought enters my head at any time,” he confessed; he “only endeavoured to write plain English, and to put my thoughts in language which every one can understand.” No one, indeed, has ever affected to discover individuality in Southey’s prose, or has assigned to him epoch-making importance in any of the departments of letters he cultivated so assiduously. His style has been, and still is, considered “perfect,” because it suits to perfection the use to which it is deliberately put.  2
  The purely bookish life which Southey led affected, in De Quincey’s opinion, his conversational manner. When engaged in controversial talk, he was apt to use a sententious, epigrammatic form of speech, not for the object of winning applause for brilliance, but so that he might meet the demand upon his opinions at the slightest cost of thought and time, and get back with the least possible delay to his books. The habits of a literary recluse did not affect his style of composition to the same extent. But solitary thinking and the trick of getting rid of discussion when it came his way by means of an epigram, largely influenced the character of his work, and for the worse. He is a striking proof of the fallacy that detachment from the world gives of necessity a true perspective. The Southey of Keswick was in temperament the Southey of the Pantisocracy. As he never lost the buoyancy of youth—the half-physical necessity to energise in some way or other—so he never overcame the defects of the early shaping given to his mind. His imagination was developed too soon and too rapidly. He never became a deep or even a fairly broad thinker. In his day he found no new political truth. He collected facts industriously, grouped them artistically, and told his story perspicuously. But he could not grasp the significance of an epoch or an incident, and he measured action by no standard but his own moral taste. Macaulay scarcely exaggerated when he said that Southey’s success almost always had an inverse proportion to the degree in which his undertakings required a logical head. If, as Mr. Dowden happily puts it, “History as written by Southey is narrative rendered spiritual by moral ardour,” we cannot accept sympathy, even though its leanings are admirable, as a substitute for the show of right reason that is essential to the unifying of a chapter or volume of events. But it was the want of a sense of proportion that had the chief share in rendering Southey a historian manqué. His early visit to Lisbon gave him an interest in the Iberian peoples; he conceived and preserved through life an exaggerated notion of their importance in the economy of the world. At his death he had not completed his preparations even for a History of Portugal. His History of Brazil is a storehouse of facts relating to a comparatively uninteresting and unimportant race. He imagined that when the Brazilians became a powerful nation it would be to them what the work of Herodotus was to Europe. It is a monument of industry. One cannot but admire the skill with which the simple, uneventful story of the country’s progress is unfolded, but one cannot also help doubting whether the work will ever redeem, or deserve to redeem its original failure. No one now dips into the three quarto volumes of the History of the Peninsular War. It is, like the History of Brazil, a colossal piece of work, an honest narrative of facts, inspired by a profound enthusiasm for the Spanish cause, and a very hearty hatred of Bonaparte and all his works. Yet Wellington justly said it was wholly inadequate, and displayed gross ignorance; and it has been fairly enough criticised as an exhibition of useless erudition. Southey, beyond all doubt, took immense pains with his historical work. He consulted all available sources, witnesses, and books. He set down the truth in plain narrative. His success was the measure of his capacity, not of his industry or of his good intentions.  3
  In biography Southey attained a far higher level. Here he was unmistakably at his best, and that best was excellent. Judged by his most famous and enduring work, The Life of Nelson, he has all the virtues of a first-rate biographer, except a large knowledge of the world, and the very highest skill in the appreciation of character. In writing biographies at all events he did not fail, as in his histories, to distinguish between what interested him and what interested the public. His Life of Cowper and his Life of Wesley are only not so good as his Life of Nelson. His style is natural, easy, unaffected; a better for the purpose could not be imagined. Though he never got to the bottom of Nelson’s character, and “walked among sea-terms as carefully as a cat does among crockery,” he produced a splendid panorama of the deeds of the naval hero. His Cowper, though it has not kept its place as a popular classic, any more than his Wesley, which Coleridge could “read for the twentieth time” is a sound literary performance. Southey’s translations of romantic fiction are wholly admirable. His rendering of The Cid into limpid English prose has not been superseded.  4
  Southey, the poet laureate (successor of Pye, and predecessor of Wordsworth), the historian, the biographer, the literary critic, made in reality a deeper impression on his time in political controversy than in any other department of letters. The sometime republican and enthusiast for the Revolution became, in the pages of the Quarterly Review, the leading champion of Toryism. He suffered obloquy for his apparently cardinal change of views. But we at this time of day are better able to judge of the morality of his political evolution than hostile reviewers and politicians in the beginning of the century. Crabbe Robinson drew from his published correspondence a “conviction of the perfect freedom of his mind from all dishonourable motives in the change that has taken place in his practical politics and philosophy.” While others in consequence of the horrors of the French Revolution lost all faith in the future, Southey never doubted the cause of human improvement. But he came to believe more and more in the slow process of education, and to disbelieve in the Radicalism to which he had pinned his early faith. The cast of his mind and his temperament indeed sufficiently account for his seeming tergiversation. He was incapable of clear sustained thought on any subject. He was ever swayed by his feelings rather than by reason; his judgments were too often hasty and incomplete. But he could sustain a long argument with both power and skill, and being always confident in his monopoly of the truth, he wrote with an ease and lucidity which gave distinction to his controversial style, and helped to keep literature of the kind remarkably pure and elevated in tone at a time when party passion ran high. De Quincey, although he would not allow Southey the loftier qualities of style, admitted him to have been completely successful in the conduct of elaborate and involved controversy. The dignity of his argumentative writing is indeed very notable. Never walking on stilts, he never lets himself down below a certain decorous level. It is worth while to quote the conclusion of his reply to a Mr. William Smith who, while Southey was expounding Toryism in the press, raked up in Parliament an early revolutionary poem of his, Wat Tyler, which was never published by himself. “How far,” he wrote, “the writings of Mr. Southey may be found to deserve a favourable acceptance from after ages time will decide; but a name which, whether worthily or not, has been conspicuous in the literary history of its age, will certainly not perish. Some account of his life will always be prefixed to his works, and transferred to literary histories and to the biographical dictionaries not only of this but of other countries. There it will be related of him that he lived in the bosom of his family in absolute retirement; that in all his writings there breathed the same abhorrence of oppression and immorality, the same spirit of devotion, and the same ardent wishes for the melioration of mankind; and that the only charge which malice could bring against him was that, as he grew older, his opinions altered concerning the means by which the melioration was to be effected, and that, as he learned to understand the institutions of his country, he learned to appreciate them rightly, to love, and to revere, and to defend them. It will be said of him that, in an age of personality, he abstained from satire; and that during the course of his literary life, often as he was assailed, the only occasion on which he ever condescended to reply was when a certain Mr. William Smith insulted him in Parliament with the appellation of renegade. On that occasion it will be said that he vindicated himself as it became him to do, and treated his calumniator with just and memorable severity. Whether it shall be added that Mr. William Smith redeemed his own character by coming forward with honest manliness and acknowledging that he had spoken rashly and unjustly concerns himself but is not of the slightest importance to me.”  5
  The necessary allowance made for the personal equation, this proud apologia presents the real Southey. His correspondence proves him to have been a kindly, generous, plain-living, and high-thinking man. His epistolary style, particularly in his mature years, was a model at once of simplicity and of neatness. Southey essayed yet another method of composition. Into The Doctor, a sort of novel with the slenderest thread of story, he poured the contents of his note-books, and all the vagrant thoughts of an active brain. It contains fragments of narrative of great beauty, and some good stories, but even the immortal Three Bears cannot redeem the book from the charge of intolerable dulness. Espriella’s Letters, purporting to be a Spaniard’s impressions of England, can still be read. For the Colloquies on Society, Macaulay’s celebrated article has secured immortality of a sort.  6
 
 
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