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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Robert Southey (1774–1843)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IF it were possible to earn a place among the immortals by the force of unremitting toil, no man of letters could have a clearer claim to the distinction than Robert Southey. The vast labors of his life, seconding talents of no mean order, did indeed build for him a reputation which cannot be destroyed by time. What the author of ‘Thalaba’ and the ‘Life of Nelson’ accomplished, has a definite and solid value. Within his limits he did his life’s work well. He was a good and faithful servant of literature: had he had more of the mastery of genius, he would have been less in bondage to his conceptions. As it was, he was fettered by the schemes for his vast epics and interminable histories. The element of drudgery dulls even the greatest of his works. He is among English men of letters as one that serveth.  1
  His life touched at many points the lives of other noted men; yet it was ever self-contained, closed in against all passions but the one devouring passion for culture. There was a Southey who, feeling the electric currents of the revolution, dreamed of brotherhood and freedom in the forests of America: but the Southey of literary history spent his life among his thousands of beloved books in the quiet rooms of Greta Hall, content with the use and wont of the Old World; content to perform, year in and year out, the daily tasks of composition, proof-reading, and letter-writing. The poet had become the sober writer of prose; the revolutionist had become the conservative.  2
  Robert Southey was born on the 12th of August, 1774. His father, a linen draper, being unsuccessful in his business, the care and support of the boy was partly assumed by his mother’s maiden aunt, Miss Tyler,—an eccentric woman, who was wise enough however to feed her charge’s mind with such tales as ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ and the ‘History of the Seven Champions of England’; she further trained the future poet in the way he should go, by taking him to the theatre, and by allowing him to enter into the enchanted world of Beaumont and Fletcher, and to wander along the broad human highways of Shakespeare.  3
  He was early taken from these most beautiful and tender nurses of genius, and delivered over to schoolmasters to be “regularly” educated. Great institutions of learning do not always know how to conduct the education of a poet. Westminster School rejected Southey after four years of nurture, because the boy wrote a sarcastic article on flogging, for the paper published by the pupils. Two enduring friendships, however, were formed at Westminster: one with Grosvenor Bedford, the other with C. W. Wynn. It was through the liberality of the latter that an annuity of £160 was for many years settled upon Southey. Through provision made by his uncle, the Rev. Mr. Hill, chaplain to the British factory at Lisbon, Southey was enabled to go to Oxford. Christ Church rejected him because of the Westminster episode, but he was received at Balliol.  4
  In 1794 occurred an event of much importance in his life: he met Coleridge. With the mystical poet, “voyaging on strange seas of thought alone,” the young Southey had much in common. They were both under the domination of the republican spirit; they had both looked to France for the dawn of the social millennium, and had beheld only the terrors of the midnight tempest. They both dreamed of a world made over nearer to the heart’s desire. Coleridge had already formulated his dreams. They should go to America: there in the virgin forests they could free themselves forever from the pernicious social system of the Old World. They would live as brothers. Each would till the soil, living by the work of his own hands. Each would take with him a wife who should share the toil and the blessings. They would rear their children in innocence and peace. They would live the ideal life of study and of manual labor in the bosom of nature. Their community would be a “pantisocracy.” Coleridge and Southey had friends ready and willing to make the venture,—Robert Lovell, a young Quaker; Robert Allen, and George Burnett. Lovell’s wife had four sisters,—Edith, Sarah, Martha, and Elizabeth Fricker. An idea prevailed among the pantisocrats that these ladies might be married off-hand, the only inducement necessary being a glowing description of the land of promise. Southey, however, had another object in marrying than the good of the new community. He loved Edith Flicker, and she returned his affection.  5
  Nothing was lacking now to the perfect success of the scheme but money. The young enthusiasts were rich in dreams, but poor in pocket. Coleridge never had money in his life. The others, being also of the poetical temperament, could never have much of it. Southey and Coleridge began a series of lectures, the one on history, the other on ethics and politics, for the sake of raising the necessary funds. About this time Southey met Joseph Cottle, a Bristol bookseller, whose sincere friendship manifested itself in substantial forms. Two years before, in 1794, Southey had written an epic, ‘Joan of Arc,’ in which he had embodied his democratic fervor. Cottle bought this of him for fifty guineas, and published it in 1796. The assistance was timely; for the young poet was in disgrace with Miss Tyler, who had cast him out on the news of his intended marriage with Miss Flicker.  6
  Soon after the publication of ‘Joan of Arc,’ Southey’s uncle, Mr. Hill, arrived from Lisbon; having heard of his nephew’s vagaries, and believing that a change of scene would bring about a change of mind, he induced him to return with him. On the day of his departure he was secretly married to Edith. He returned, cured of pantisocracy, but with his mind full of poetical schemes: epics galore, tragedies and comedies and romances, which were to be wrought out one by one. Among the first of these to be completed was ‘Madoc,’ a narrative poem of the adventures of a Welsh prince of the twelfth century in the wilderness of America. He had been meanwhile for a year in London crucifying his spirit over law-books. After leaving London and the law, he wandered through England for a time, finally settling at Norwich, where he spent twelve months. The breaking down of his health led to a second visit to Portugal, on which his wife accompanied him. On his return he was offered the position of private secretary to Mr. Corry, Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland. He accepted it; but the post not proving a congenial one, he soon returned to England, and not long afterwards took up his abode in Greta Hall, Keswick, in the English Lake region, where he was to spend the remainder of his life,—supporting himself, his family, and Coleridge’s family, by his incessant literary labors.  7
  It is in the household of Greta Hall that the greater Southey, Southey the man, comes into clear view; he is seen here as the loving father and husband, as the kind kinsman of the Coleridge children, as the friend ever ready with words of sympathy, advice, and encouragement. A remarkable family of children was gathered under his roof. There were his own brilliant, beautiful Herbert, Edith May, Bertha, Kate, and Isabel; there was the marvelous child, the elfish Hartley Coleridge; there were also his brother Derwent, and Sara Coleridge, who had inherited not a small share of her father’s genius. There was besides a large colony of cats, whose high-sounding names Southey has recorded in his ‘Chronicle History of the Cattery of Cat’s Eden.’  8
  In 1813 Southey was appointed to the office of Poet Laureate, made vacant by the death of Pye. At that date his more important works included his metrical romance of ‘Thalaba the Destroyer,’ the romance of ‘Amadis de Gaul’ from a Spanish version, ‘The Chronicle of the Cid,’ ‘The Curse of Kehama,’ ‘Espriella’s Letters,’ and the ‘History of Portugal’ begun but not finished. In 1807 he had produced ‘Specimens of the Later English Poets,’ and ‘Palmerin of Portugal,’ a translation from the Portuguese. His Poet-Laureateship was the recognition of his youthful work. Southey seems to have renounced poetry with his republicanism. The odes which he wrote in his official character are forced in tone, and with exception of the ‘Funeral Song for the Princess Charlotte,’ commonplace. After taking up his abode in Greta Hall, Southey devoted himself chiefly to prose composition. He wrote there his ‘History of Brazil,’ his ‘History of Portugal,’ his lives of Wesley, of Cowper, and of Nelson, his commonplace books, his ‘History of the Peninsular War,’ and that charming book of gossip, ‘The Doctor.’ His prose is masterly, direct, and even. His claim to be numbered among the foremost English men of letters rests indeed upon his prose.  9
  The events of his life at Keswick are chiefly those of a student and a scholar. For many years it was necessary that he should write incessantly, performing his day-labor like a workman in the fields. After this necessity was removed, he still toiled on, finding his greatest pleasure in the companionship of his books, and of his friends, among whom were Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, and Landor. His reputation attracted to him men of the highest intellectual rank; even one man as far removed from him in thought and feeling as the poet Shelley. Southey was never slow to recognize genius and to befriend it; but with certain literary movements in England he had little sympathy. His designation of Byron and his coterie as the “Satanic School” was not the least just, as it was the most unfriendly, of his criticisms. For the work of Wordsworth, of Landor, and of Lamb, he had unqualified admiration.  10
  In 1816 Southey was offered a baronetcy through the influence of Sir Robert Peel; but he declined the honor. In 1826 he was offered a seat in Parliament, and an estate to qualify him for the office; but this he also declined. Oxford conferred upon him the degree of LL. D.; he refused a similar honor from Cambridge.  11
  His later years were darkened by domestic afflictions. The light of his life went out when his son Herbert, a child of the rarest promise, passed away. His second marriage in 1839, to the writer Caroline Anne Bowles, was one of convenience. For a year or two before his death the vigor of his faculties was almost wholly departed. He died on the 21st of March, 1843, literally worn out by brain labor.  12
  As Mr. Dowden, in his life of Southey, points out, the literary career of the poet falls into two periods: a period during which he devoted himself chiefly to poetry, and a later period during which prose occupied the first place.  13
  Southey’s poetry is not of the first rank. It is too intentional and well-ordered. He had not the imagination to cope with the subject-matter of his epics,—which, as in ‘Thalaba’ and ‘Kehama,’ is taken from wild Arabian legends, or as in ‘Roderick,’ from the dim rich pages of mediæval chronicle. His simple, serious spirit expresses itself most adequately in his ballads, and in such poems as ‘The Battle of Blenheim,’ ‘The Complaints of the Poor,’ and in the quiet, measured verse of the ‘Inscriptions.’ His prose has more of the light of inspiration. Its sustained, sober excellence is well adapted to the long-drawn-out impersonal narratives which Southey could handle with so much skill and ease. He united the patience of the mediæval chronicler with the culture of the modern historian. He wrote, in the sober temper of the scholar, of “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.” For him the fever had departed from them. He was not a dramatist in his conception of history. What had been done had been done, and he recorded it impassionately. Yet he was not without keen sympathies, as his ‘Life of Cowper’ and his ‘Life of Nelson’ show. Southey as a biographer reveals his own high standards of life, his love of equity, his appreciation of noble achievement wherever found, his belief in character as the basis of well-being. He himself was altogether true-hearted. The manliness which pervades all his works makes large compensation for the lack of the divine spark of genius.  14
 
 
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