The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Robert Southey
What heart does not warm to the memory of Robert Southey, pattern of the literary character in this wearing nineteenth century? Penniless, disowned by his friends, with no one to look up to for assistance, nothing could divert him from his cherished inclination. He lived for literature. Its pursuit constituted his happiness. For it he sacrificed proffered rank and power; and joyfully he devoted to its service a toiling life of unexampled industry. Yet this man so wedded to his absorbing vocation, in the social capacity of husband, father, relative and friend, stands above reproach. His life is one emphatic denial of the daring falsehood, that genius and virtue are incompatible, that domestic felicity is inconsistent with literary labour. England knew not a happier circle, than that which for years assembled by the humble hearthstone at Greta Hall. It is refreshing to turn aside from the babble of the world, and contemplate that peaceful home, nestling amid the Cumberland mountains.
Our hero first saw the light on the 12th August, 1774, at Bristol, in which city his father was residing, engaged in trade. His ancestors, who were yeomen of Somersetshire, were settled about eighty years anterior to that period near Wellington in that county. As they bore arms, and the arms had a religious character, he was pleased to imagine they were of gentle blood; and that far back in crusading times, a Southey had couched a lance against the infidel in Palestine.
The sensibilities of the child were early awakened, and when he was three years old, the recital of the fine old ballad of "Chevy Chase" would bring tears into his eyes. Until his sixth year, he was placed at a school superintended by an antique dame of awful aspect, and the youthful dreamer there planned a scheme, to go with two of his school-fellows and live by themselves in freedom on some desert island. Some martial predilections that manifested themselves about this time, in jarring contrast with his more peaceful longings were speedily whipped out of him.
His holydays he occasionally spent with Miss Tyler, a maiden aunt, a half-sister of his mother, who had a house in one of the suburbs of Bath, and the life he led there must have clashed rudely with the gentle enthusiasm of his nature. This lady was a singular character, careless, or unable to understand the disposition of the bright-eyed boy she sheltered beneath her roof. She held the notion that a commanding mind was invariably associated with a violent temper, and indulged her own accordingly. Though scrupulously clean, she would go about in rags, lived in the worst kitchen, and was parsimonious of everything but money. A severe cleanliness was her exaggerated virtue, and her abhorrence of dust amounted to a disease. She would send out the tea-kettle to be emptied and refilled, if any one chanced to walk past the fire-place while it was simmering upon the hob; a cup would be buried for weeks if it had come in contact with the unclean lip of a stranger, and so sacred in her eyes was her cherry wood arm-chair, that "if any visitor who was not in her especial favour sat thereon, the leathern cushion was always sent into the garden to be aired and purified before she would use it again." The grounds about the house abounded with fruit trees, and the fragrant jessamine clustered over the steps that led from the parlour to the garden. This was a favourite spot with young Southey, where he would often sit for hours, indulging in the vague and strange reveries of childhood. The house was tastefully filled with antique furniture, a few prints adorned the walls, and a curtain guarded from flies and profanation, Gainsborough's portrait of its eccentric mistress. Here wearily passed the days of the child-poet; he was allowed no playmates; he experienced no sympathy; he was debarred from the exercises natural to his age, as no speck of dirt was ever allowed to soil his immaculate attire. He slept with his aunt, who was a late riser, and morning after morning had he to lie in painful tranquillity, fearing lest he might disturb her by some involuntary motion; occupied in tracing fanciful combinations in the folds of the curtains, and watching the countless motes dancing in the sunbeams that crept through the chinks of the shutters.
The wife of Francis Newberry, a son of Goldsmith's publishing patron, was a friend of Miss Tyler's, and she presented the nephew with twenty of those famous juvenile works, so popular, before it was the custom to torture the minds of children with elementary treatises on statics and political economy. To the eager perusal of these treasures Southey ascribed much of his early predilection for books. He was frequently taken to the theatre, for which amusement Miss Tyler had a strong partiality, and would converse with the actors who visited her house. He even caught the dramatic tone of conversation, and one Sunday on his return from church received a grave rebuke, for having observed that there had been a very full house that morning.
In his sixth year he was sent to a school at Bristol, kept by one Foot, a Baptist, who had sunk into Arianism, a vindictive and stern divine, who died after he had been there twelve months, and was succeeded by a Socinian. He was then removed to Corston, about nine miles from Bristol; this school was abruptly dissolved, and young Southey was sent to live with his grandmother at Bedminster, with whom Miss Tyler was then domesticated.
He was next placed under a Welshman named Williams, at Bristol, from whom he learnt but little, but where he spent the pleasantest of his school days. Williams, who was proud of his elocution, once asked his pupil scornfully who taught him to read. "My aunt," replied Southey. "Then give my compliments to your aunt," said the master, "and tell her that my old horse that has been dead twenty years could have taught you as well." Southey innocently delivered the message verbatim, and was astonished at the violent reception it met with. He was next placed under the superintendence of Lewis, a clergyman at Bristol, where Miss Tyler was then residing. This succession of teachers must, according to conventional notions of education, have been most injurious. An ordinary boy would have been as ignorant at the end of such a peregrination as at the beginning. But it was advantageous rather than hurtful to an inquisitive mind like Southey's. The frequent change of scene enlarged his ideas, and he had already commenced that system of unconscious self-culture, which is the principal, probably the only, effective education of superior minds. Newberry's publications had awakened a taste for reading, which he gratified by all available means. Beaumont and Fletcher were read through before he was eight years old; he had also made himself familiar with some of the plays of Shakespeare, and the discrepancy between them, and the history of the times they treated of, was a grievous puzzle to him.
During one of his holidays, a friend made him a present of Hoole's translation of "Tasso." The book touched a nerve in his organization that had till then been dormant, and the remembrance of the gratification its pages afforded, endured through all his after life. The book was carefully preserved. "Forty years," said he, writing in 1823, "have tarnished the gilding upon its back, but they have not effaced my remembrance of the joy with which I received it, and the delight I found in its perusal." Tasso, Ariosto, Spenser, Mickle's "Lusiad," Pope's "Homer," Josephus, Sidney's "Arcadia," and Rowley were diligently read. His father's library was limited, a small cupboard held all his books and his wine-glasses; but during the holidays, the boy had the run of a circulating library in the town comprising a few hundred volumes, and among them he revelled.
He had projected and commenced both tragedies and epic poems, before he was ten years of age, and was surprised that his schoolfellows should experience any difficulty in providing appropriate dialogue if he furnished the plot and characters. "It is the easiest thing in the world," said he, "to write a play, for you know you have only to think what you would say if you were in the place of the characters, and to make them say it." He was sensitive, however, of his fame, and some of his pieces having been discovered and read at his aunt's, he invented a cypher; but becoming unable to solve his own hieroglyphics, burnt his manuscripts in vexation.
In February, 1788, he went to Westminster, but not having been previously drilled in Latin verse-making, he never distinguished himself at the school. While there, a paper was started called "The Flagellant." In consequence of an attack on corporal punishment, in the ninth number, furnished by Southey, written in a strain of jocularity rather than invective, Dr. Vincent, the head master, commenced an action for libel against the publisher, and dismissed its contributor from the school; a hard punishment, it seems, for so trivial a delinquency, and unwise to give such consideration to the foolish productions of boys. The circumstance reminds us of a similar event, of recent occurrence, which was treated with much more temper and judgment. In a metropolitan educational establishment, some youthful reformers undertook to criticise the doings of their masters. A periodical was started, bearing a formidable title, which was to make the oppressors pale with fear. The Principal, without manifesting the slightest perturbation, summoned the ferocious editor, thanked him for his flattering allusion to himself, and mildly strangled "The Autocrat," at its birth.
The fame of "The Flagellant," preceded the discomfited writer to Oxford, and on his presenting himself at Christ Church, the Dean, Cyril Jackson, most unreasonably declined to receive him. Long years afterwards, the University, amid unbounded acclamations, conferred its highest honours on the man she once could treat thus harshly. When will it be discovered that the justest and the soundest policy for that body to pursue, is to throw open their college doors as widely as possible? If full permission to grant or refuse admittance to a great public institution be unreservedly entrusted to an individual, common justice requires that such a functionary should preserve himself pure from all prejudicial bias, and hold his important privilege, not as a private appanage, but as a trust, solely for the public good.
Southey was however admitted at Balliol College, and went into residence in January, 1793. The principal event that marked his college career was his acquaintance with Coleridge. That singular compound of grandeur and littleness was an undergraduate at Jesus College, Cambridge. In June, 1794, he visited Oxford, was introduced to Southey, with whom a common sympathy in tastes and opinions begat an intimacy which speedily ripened into friendship.
Those were days of excitement, nay, of frenzy. The French Revolution had burst upon Europe; political trials tore in pieces the usual equanimity of English society, and the writings of Burke were the theme of universal laudation or invective. Coleridge talked, debated, speculated, with all the ardour of his imaginative and capacious intellect; while the writings of Godwin and Rousseau had excited in Southey's mind the most distorted views of the capabilities and ends of civil society. Then did these two dreamers converse gravely of Pantisocracy. The distracted world was to be edified by the visible realization of a scheme, more ideal and perfect than had ever amused the fancy or beguiled the tedium of poet or philosopher. On the banks of the Susquehannah a community should arise, in which patriarchal innocence and European refinement were to harmonize in blending beauty. Laws would be superfluous; selfishness proscribed; contention, discord, and crime become unknown words. Their territory, the purchase of their joint contributions, should be tilled by their common labour. The wives of the party were to perform all the necessary domestic offices, and no unsympathizing bachelor was to profane by his presence that select elysium. Lovell, a quaker-poet, and another Oxford man, named Burnett, embraced their views; and their number eventually swelled to twenty-five. Gradually, however, the enthusiasm was neutralized, by the very cause that had contributed to its creation. The two poets were at Bristol, the place chosen as their port of embarkation. Cottle, the publisher, who had formed their acquaintance, and looked up to them with affectionate pride, made himself wretched by harping upon the day that was to bear them beyond the broad Atlantic. A laconic epistle from Coleridge opened his eyes and dispelled his fears. It consisted of a single sentence, but the commencement was pointedly significant. "My dear Sir," wrote the reformer, "can you conveniently lend me five pounds? as we want a little more than four pounds to make up our lodging bill." Cottle sent off the money with tears of joy. Oh ye publishers! has ever your craft produced his fellow?
He had been invited to join their society, but had modestly excused himself on the plea of unworthiness. He introduced, however, his new friends to several persons in the neighbourhood, and they repaid him to the best of their ability. "Each of them," says he, "read me his productions, each accepted my invitations;" and we learn without surprise that these regenerators of the human race thought Bristol a "very pleasant residence."
Various schemes were devised to provide for current expenses; they proposed a magazine, but such a work was not to be "undertaken without a certainty of indemnification," and such a certainty could not be ensured, notwithstanding Southey's confidence of being able "to make it the best thing of the kind ever published." They obtained a small, though timely supply, by delivering each a course of lectures, Southey on History, and Coleridge on Politics; while Cottle offered them thirty guineas each for their poems, Coleridge having in vain attempted to find a publisher for his in London. Meanwhile the emigration movement stood still. Southey, who was the first to awake to a perception of its absurdity, proposed a preliminary trial in Wales, to which Coleridge instinctively objected; and when at last the head of the Pantisocratists announced to their philosophic defender the fatal tidings of his secession from the "aspheterising" society, the indignation of the thwarted colonizer shook for a while the equanimity of the friend.
Southey's "Joan of Arc," written in 1793, had been announced for publication by subscription, but subscribers were slow to come forward. He happened to read a portion of it to Cottle, who, with characteristic generosity, immediately offered him fifty guineas for the copyright, together with fifty copies for his subscribers. Southey was too rejoiced to hesitate, and set himself diligently to work, correcting and recomposing. He studied as models, the Bible, Homer, and Ossian, and, with an unexpected bathos, we are told, that his style was "much ameliorated by Bowles." During the fervour of the scheme of Pantisocracy, he had fallen in love with Miss Fricker, one of whose sisters was the wife of Lovell, and another, Coleridge shortly afterwards married. The design of the emigration and the intended marriage had been entrusted to his mother, who was to have accompanied the colonists; but the cautious enthusiast had been most careful to prevent any rumour of these grave matters reaching the ears of Miss Tyler. But great revolutions in society will indicate their approach. Officious gossip whispered the astounding intelligence, and the storm burst upon his poor head with a fury as violent as it was sudden. He was turned out of doors, penniless, on a stormy night (Friday, Oct. 18th, 1794), and, after having walked from Bath that morning, had to retrace his journey on foot, through wind and pelting rain; and the aunt and nephew were never afterwards reconciled.
He had quitted Oxford, partly because his religious views would have been a bar to his entrance into the Church, partly through the failure of his father's resources; and he now found himself thrown upon the world without any visible means of support, his relatives offended, and a dowerless maiden about to become his bride. "I could not enter the Church," he afterwards wrote, "nor had I finances to study physic; I have not the gift of making shoes, nor the happy art of mending them; education has unfitted me for trade, and I must perforce enter the muster-roll of authors." But the alternative pleased him. A secret gratification accompanied his perplexities. Why should he fret, if opposing circumstances pushed him from the ordinary track? They but afforded him a pretext to tread that thorny ascent he was inwardly resolved to attempt. As he paced the streets wearied, desolate, not knowing where to obtain the morrow's meal, he felt little concern on that account; he was busied on better things, shaping high themes of tragic dignity, and giving a language to the craving thoughts that crowded his fertile imagination.
His uncle, Mr. Hill, who held a chaplaincy at Lisbon, to wean him from his imprudent attachment, and to withdraw him from the influence of his theorizing friends, proposed that he should accompany him on his return to Portugal. But the love for his fair Edith was of that equable but ardent nature, which can see no obstacles to its consummation. When it was settled that he should leave England, he fixed a day for his marriage. The ceremony was performed within the fine old pile of Redcliffe Church (Nov. 14th, 1795), and he then immediately prepared for his voyage. "My Edith persuades me to go, and then weeps that I am going;" and sadly his maiden-wife watched his departure, with her wedding-ring hanging round her neck. The affection thus strangely testified, deepened with advancing years, and knew no cold vicissitude till made holy by the touch of death.
His residence abroad, which lasted from November 1795 to May 1796, gave rise to his "Letters from Spain and Portugal," and on his return he commenced writing for "The Monthly Magazine" and other periodicals. "I am continually writing or reading," he observes, in a letter to a friend; "if industry can do anything for any man, it shall for me. My plan is to study from five in the morning till eight, from nine till twelve, and from one till four. The evenings are my own." Meantime he projected Epics, Tragedies, Histories, Romances; nothing was too arduous for his bold ambition.
To ensure a competence, however, he proposed to undertake the study of the law, though without any serious intention of devoting himself to the profession. When a sufficiency had been gained, he would retire to the country, and his first Christmas fire should be made of his calf-bound volumes. "Oh, Grosvenor," he writes, "what a blessed bonfire!" No wonder the study baffled him. That rugged mistress must be perseveringly wooed, and for her own sake alone, otherwise the brightest minds will fail where every day we see plodding mediocrity excel.
He looked forward to a residence in London with a shrinking dread; and it was with undisguised dissatisfaction he went up and entered himself at Gray's Inn. (Feb. 7th, 1797). His old schoolfellow at Westminster, Mr. C. W. W. Wynn, with rare and honourable generosity, offered him an annuity of £160 per annum, which he frankly accepted.
In the spring, thinking his law studies could be pursued as successfully in the country as in London, he took lodgings at Burton, in Hampshire. Here he soon found himself to his heart's delight, the centre of a family group. His mother joined him, and his brother Thomas, a midshipman just released from prison at Brest. Charles Lloyd, afterwards classed with the Lake School, and Cottle, paid him a visit; and here commenced his lasting friendship with Rickman, one of the guests at Lamb's Wednesday evening suppers. He next removed to Bath, and at the end of the year returned to London. He wrote for "The Critical Review," prepared a second edition of "Joan of Arc," and still talked of reading law; but he fancied London disagreed with him, and removed to Bristol. Burnet, the quondam Pantisocratist, had become a Unitarian minister at Norwich. Southey had placed his younger brother Henry with him as a private pupil, and seized the excuse to visit that city, where he became acquainted with the celebrated William Taylor.
On his return, he took a small house at Westbury, near Bristol, and in March, 1799, went up to London to keep his term. The day after his arrival he wrote to his wife, telling her he was already home-sick, and planning how he might soonest do his work and get back. The old book-stalls afforded him his only amusement, and his delight was great on exhuming several scarce and ponderous epics in French and Italian—lured to them, it would seem, by some mysterious sympathy—and the perusal of which was to constitute the ravishing employment of his evenings at home. "I have had self-denial enough," he writes, "(admire me Edith!) to abstain from these books till my return."
It became daily more evident that he was to look to his pen for subsistence, but the prospect to an ordinary mind would have been sufficiently discouraging. With all his prodigious toil, he had made little impression on the public. His rejection of rhyme, and the novel form in which he cast his poems, offended the ear of a generation tuned to a more regular rhythm; while his political views affected their sale, as in those heated times men refused, or were unable, to discriminate the poet from the partizan. Nevertheless, he was steadily acquiring a reputation among the publishers, and could calculate on constant and tolerably remunerative employment. His years now numbered five-and-twenty. He had passed through a difficult youth, but his conduct had been uniformly pure. He had never stooped to the easy palliation of misfortune or impulsive temperament as an excuse for youthful depravity, and in the darkest season had resolutely borne up against despondency. Once only, he had allowed the yearning of affection to stifle prudential warnings; unless, indeed, such an abandonment of self be not in the end man's highest prudence. Experience had chastened his romantic aspirations. His views were becoming more sober and more enlarged. And so, with cheerful brow, he faced the future. The past gave him no cause for regret, and, with his Edith by his side, he could look forward with hope, and love would consecrate toil.
"Madoc" had been commenced before "Joan of Arc" was planned; he now resumed it, and before long, "Thalaba," too, was on the anvil, as with his astonishing facility, one epic was scarcely completed before he was midway in another. His health sank under such continuous labour, and a change of air was imperatively urged by his friends. He was expecting to raise the necessary funds for a trip to Germany by the sale of his "Thalaba," when a strong desire came over him to pay a second visit to Portugal.
In April, 1800, after waiting several days for a fair wind, he embarked at Falmouth, with Mrs. Southey, in the Lisbon packet. The weather was fine, but both the travellers suffered severely from sea-sickness. One morning, to add to their disquietude, a cutter with English colours, but evidently French, was seen bearing down upon them. They signalled; no notice was taken. A gun was fired and immediately answered; an action seemed inevitable. They mounted ten guns, their companion packet seven; but the cutter was more than a match for both. All were in a bustle of preparation; Mrs. Southey, pale and trembling, was conveyed to the cockpit, and Southey, musket in hand, took his station on the quarter-deck. The cutter swept between the two vessels with contemptuous calmness. She was so near, that the smoke from her matches was clearly discernible. They hailed her, and were replied to in broken English, and the object of dread passed on. She was veritably English, though manned chiefly by Guernsey men. Southey felt an "honest joy" at this satisfactory conclusion. "I laid the musket in the chest," says he, "with considerably more pleasure than I took it out."
He remained at Lisbon a month or two, renewing old associations, and in July took up his abode at Cintra. Here he busied himself in collecting materials for his "History of Portugal," the work that was to hand down his name to posterity, almost the first and the last day dream of his life. He devoted himself likewise to the assiduous study of Portuguese literature, nothing daunted by its comparatively unimportant character. "It is not worth much," says he, "but it is not from the rose and the violet only that the bee sucks honey."
He missed at first the companionship and conversation of his friends. "Here I lack society," he wrote, "and were it not for a self-sufficiency (like the bear who sucks his paws when the snow shuts him up in his den) should be in a state of famine;" but this want kept him with the greater steadiness at his studies. He formed also an attachment for the neighbourhood of Cintra, and contemplated a return to England with evident reluctance. His health materially improved, and the glowing scenery of his temporary home grew familiar to his imagination. The river with its mountain boundary, the winter sun, and the summer paradise of myrtle and orange trees entranced him with their ever-increasing attractions. "I would gladly live and die here," he exclaimed; but his literary plans operated to counteract any such inclinations, and he became anxious with the help of English libraries to digest and arrange the profuse materials he had been so diligently collecting. Coleridge had taken up his abode at Keswick, and his thoughts turned to a home near his friend. The distance, however, from Bristol and London, the two foci of his publishing interests weighed with him against such a decision, and he turned a wistful eye to Allfoxen in Somersetshire, where Wordsworth had resided. In June (1801) he returned to England and proceeded direct to Bristol. His friends were gratified by his altered appearance; his health was re-established, and the nervous symptoms induced by a sedentary life and excessive task-work of the brain, had been dispelled by change of climate, and the vicissitudes of travel.
Coleridge invited him to Greta Hall, and sent him the following description of the place which, after his many and uncertain wanderings; eventually became his fixed and permanent home. "Our house stands on a low hill, the whole front of which is one field, and an enormous garden, nine-tenths of which is a nursery garden. Behind the house is an orchard, and a small wood on a steep slope, at the foot of which flows the river Greta, which winds round and catches the evening lights in the front of the house. In front we have a giant's camp—an encamped army of tent-like mountains, which by an inverted arch gives a view of another vale. On our right the lovely vale and the wedge-shaped Lake of Bassenthwaite, and on our left Derwentwater and Lodore full in view, and the fantastic mountains of Borrodaile. Behind us is the massy Skiddaw, smooth, green, high with two chasms, and a tent-like ridge in the larger. A fairer scene you have not seen in all your wanderings."
The benefit Southey had derived from his residence in Portugal induced him to hope for some foreign appointment, which would enable him to fix his abode in a warmer latitude. He had some prospect of obtaining a secretaryship to the embassy at Constantinople, and contemplated a tour in the East with great satisfaction. He was at a little trouble in raising the necessary funds for his travelling expedition to the Lakes, where he arrived in the course of the summer. The scenery disappointed him at first; his memory still dwelling on the broader waters, and the loftier mountains, and the purer and brighter sunshine of a southern landscape; but more familiar acquaintance converted disappointment into admiration and love. The gorgeous splendour of other lands may appeal to the imagination, and captivate the eye; but the gentler loveliness of English scenery, like that of our English women, speaks imperceptibly to the heart, and fascinates affection.
In the autumn of the year, he paid a visit to his friend Mr. Wynn at his seat Llangedwin, in North Wales, where on his arrival he found a letter awaiting him, offering him the appointment of secretary to Mr. Corry, the Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland with a salary of £350 a-year. He accepted the post, and as his services were required at once, hastened back to Keswick to make the necessary preparations for his journey. At Dublin he was presented with a visible argument in favour of the Union, by some glaring specimens of the inveterate peculation that had flourished under the native government. The duties of his office required him after a very short stay there to proceed to London, and he expresses an unusual soreness at his altered position with regard to the world, or rather a certain section of that multiform concretion: "As if," says he, "the author of 'Joan of Arc,' and 'Thalaba,' was made a great man by scribing for the Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer." No one ever had a greater and more becoming sense of the dignity of the literary calling than Southey, and his pure and upright dealing throughout contributed to vindicate his lofty notion. The world thought him elevated in the social scale by the acceptance of this paltry appointment. Southey rather looked upon it as a degradation, for it suspended higher labours.
In the beginning of 1802, his mother, who was residing with him at London, died, and the loss was severely felt by one of his acute sensibilities. As the duties of his office were chiefly nominal, Mr. Corry proposed that he should comprise among them the tuition of his son to fill up the vacant time. To this Southey properly objected, and urged by conscientious motives, resigned "a foolish office and a good salary," and retired to Bristol. "I have a job in hand for Longman and Rees which will bring in £60, a possibility of £40, and a chance of a further £30." For such cheering prospects he threw up a comfortable sinecure.
His own straits only made him more sympathizing with the necessities of others. He undertook, in conjunction with Cottle, an edition of Chatterton's Works, for the benefit of the poet's sister, Mrs. Newton and her daughter, who were in extremely reduced circumstances, and felt as happy in handing over to her £300, the proceeds of his industry, as the poor woman could have felt in receiving it.
In September, 1802, his first child was born, and he became anxious to settle for life. He thought of Richmond, Keswick, Wales, and entered into a treaty for Maes Gwyn, a house in the Vale of Neath, which, on some misunderstanding with the landlord, was broken off. His thoughts still occasionally reverted to the South. Writing to his brother in May, he says: "This war terrifies and puzzles me about Portugal. I think of going over alone this next winter while I can. I have fifteen quartos on the way from Lisbon, and—zounds! if they should be taken!"
In June, 1803, he made a short trip to London to consult with Messrs. Longman and Rees respecting their projected "Bibliotheca Britannica," and he meditated settling at Richmond, and devoting himself entirely to this extensive and laborious work. But his first-born child—the infant girl of whom he had been so "foolishly fond"—was taken from him, and the bereaved parents turned their steps to Keswick, for the consolations of friendship in the society of Mr. and Mrs. Coleridge.
The excited state of public affairs deeply affected the interests of literature, and the publishers deemed it prudent to defer the appearance of their weighty undertaking. Meanwhile, two extracts from letters written during the following year, will afford some glimpse of our author's occupations.
In March, writing to Rickman, he says: "I have more in hand than Bonaparte or Marquis Wellesley—digesting Gothic law, gleaning moral history from monkish legends, and conquering India, or rather Asia with Albuquerque, filling up the chinks of the day by hunting in Jesuit chronicles, and compiling 'Collectanea Hispanica and Gothica.' Meantime, 'Madoc' sleeps, and my lucre of gain compilation ('Specimens of the English Poets') goes on at night, when I am fairly obliged to lay history aside, because it perplexes me in my dreams."
In September of the same year, he thus writes to his brother:
"Meantime, these are my employments—to finish the correcting and printing of 'Madoc,' to get through my annual work of reviewing, and bring my history as far forward as possible. In the press, I have: 1. 'Metrical Tales and other Poems;' 2. 'Specimens of the later English Poets,' i.e., of all who have died from 1685 to 1800; 3. 'Madoc,' in quarto, whereof twenty-two sheets are printed. I am learning Dutch. My reason for attaining the language is, that as the Dutch conquered, or rather destroyed, the Portuguese empire in Asia, the history of the downfall of that empire is, of course, more fully related by Dutch than by Portuguese historians. I have so far altered my original plan of the history as to resolve upon not introducing the life of St. Francisco and the Church therewith connected, but to reserve them for a separate history of Monachism, which will make a very entertaining and amusing work. A good honest quarto may comprise it. My whole historical labours will then consist of three separate works: 1. 'History of Portugal': the European part, 3 vols.; 2. 'History of the Portuguese Empire in Asia,' 2 or 3 vols.; 3. 'History of Brazil;' 4. 'History of the Jesuits in Japan;' 5. 'Literary History of Spain and Portugal,' 2 vols.; 6. 'History of Monachism.' In all, ten, eleven, or twelve quarto volumes; and you can easily imagine with what pleasure I look at all the labour before me." Happy Southey!
Gradually, he became stationary at Keswick, fixed there by his ever-accumulating library, which so increased that it became impossible to move it about with him. His life, henceforth, presents few incidents that affected his character or career, flowing on in an even tenor to the last, reading and writing his sole occupation. His health was preserved by frequent excursions to the neighbouring counties, to London and to the continent, and generally with a party of friends. These trips formed his only relaxation, but his leisure was as laborious as other men's toil. He kept minute accounts of everything that fell under his observation, ransacked book-stalls, dived into libraries, while huge packages of books, straggling after him at uncertain intervals, invariably followed his return home.
In the previous summer, he had paid a visit to London, where he dined with Sotheby, the amiable translator of "Oberon," and met several of the more distinguished literati; and this year (1805), he accompanied his friend, the Rev. Peter Elmsley (afterwards Principal of St. Alban's Hall, Oxford), to Scotland, visited Sir Walter Scott at Ashestiel, and went over the ground to which that poet had imparted a renewed interest by his recent poem, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel."
His manner of life when at home, which afterwards experienced little variation, is thus detailed in a letter to a friend: "My actions are as regular as St. Dunstan's quarter-boys. Three pages of history after breakfast (equivalent to five in small quarto printing); then to transcribe and copy for the press, or to make my selections and biographies, or what else suits my humour, till dinner-time; from dinner to tea I read, write letters, see the newspapers, and very often indulge in a siesta. After tea I go to poetry, and correct, and re-write, and copy till I am tired, and then turn to anything else till supper. And this is my life, which if it be not a very merry one, is yet as happy as heart could wish."
Though thus occupied, he still found time to assist oppressed and struggling talent; and the young and inexperienced always found in him a candid and faithful monitor, a generous and sympathizing friend. When the poems of Kirke White were so unjustifiably assailed in "The Monthly Review," the letter the broken-hearted poet wrote to the reviewers met Southey's eye. His indignation burned at the unfeeling attack. He wrote to White, offering any aid he could afford, mentioned him in London, and obtained assurances of assistance from Sotheby, Lord Carysfort, and others. Two short years laid the ardent student in his grave, a victim to College honours. "Were I to paint a picture of Fame," were his words to a friend shortly before his death, "crowning a distinguished undergraduate after a senate-house examination, I would represent her as concealing a death's head under a mask of beauty." He spoke with a presentiment of his approaching doom. Southey mourned his fate, edited his remains, wrote the tragic story of his life, and assisted his surviving brothers, who ever remained his grateful friends and correspondents.
Ebenezer Elliott acquired much of his after power and perspicuity, through following the judicious advice that Southey at various times administered, on receiving copies of his first crude and imperfect compositions. But the detail would be endless were we to go through the list of all the aspiring candidates for fame, who wrote to Southey for advice, and teased him to correct or read their effusions. Two only we select, as being instances of unusual promise untimely cut off in the unfruitful blossom.
James Dusautoy was the son of a retired officer living in Devonshire. He was one of a numerous family; their means were narrow, and he was ambitious of working his way through literature to the bar. He forwarded some of his compositions to Southey, asking his advice as to the advisability of publishing them. He was then but seventeen, and a boy's verses would not be likely to attract much notice, competing with the giant reputations of that prolific era. "Abstain from publication," was the reply, "read and write. Shoot at a high mark, and you will gain strength of arm. Precision of aim will come at its proper season." Southey interested himself to obtain his admission at Emanuel College, Cambridge, where he greatly distinguished himself in the College examinations; stood first of his year in classics, and fourth in mathematics. A fever that broke out in the town carried him off in the full flush of success, with the highest University honours almost in his grasp. He had been a competitor for the English poetical prize in 1814, when Dr. Whewell was announced as the successful candidate.
Herbert Knowles was of humble origin. Alone in the world, without father or mother; his abilities excited the attention of strangers, and they offered to subscribe a portion of the necessary expenses of his education, if his friends could raise the rest. He was sent to a school in Yorkshire, on leaving which, his friends found themselves unable to afford him further assistance. Anxious to do something for himself, he wrote a poem, "brimful of power and of promise," and sent it to Southey, asking permission to dedicate it to him. Southey made inquiries respecting him, found that his conduct was exemplary, subscribed himself, and obtained other subscriptions to make up the requisite sum for his support at Cambridge. The overjoyed youth wrote a letter to his benefactor, remarkable for the sense of gratitude it manifests throughout, but more remarkable still for its good sense. The melancholy case of Kirke White was before his eyes. He was apprehensive his physical strength might prove insufficient to support him under the exhausting efforts necessary for University distinction. "Could he twine a laurel with the cypress, he would not repine, but to relinquish every hope of future excellence, and future usefulness in one wild and unavailing pursuit, were indeed a madman's act, and worthy of a madman's fate." What he could do he would, and thus he set to work, and after the lapse of two brief months sank in the race, with all his aspirations.
Southey, notwithstanding his diligence, had been unable to extricate himself from the annoyances of hampered means; as the profits of his writings were insufficient to defray the expenses of his moderate household. In 1807, the Grenville ministry during their short tenure of power, through the influence of Mr. Wynn, one of its members, conferred on him a pension of £200 a-year. But fees and taxes reduced the amount to £144, so that his actual income was diminished by the grant, as he refused all further acceptance of the annuity Mr. Wynn had so generously allowed him. A new source of emolument was, however, soon opened up to his indefatigable pen, to which, though it interfered with the progress of what he deemed his more important works, we owe some of his most popular productions.
At the commencement of the present century, a clique of writers professing extreme liberal opinions, with characteristic intolerance attempted to establish a dictatorship in literature and politics. In their organ, "The Edinburgh Review," Southey's writings had been assailed with unsparing virulence; but on the occasion of some altercation between the editor and the publishers, the latter made overtures to Southey requesting some articles from his pen. In November, 1807, Sir Walter Scott likewise, who was a casual contributor to that journal, wrote to him, urging him to bring his talents to so lucrative a mart; and by way of palliation for the flippancy of the criticisms of "Madoc" and "Thalaba," stated, that Jeffrey had expressed the highest opinion of his character and talents. In his previous visit to Scotland, Southey had met some of these gentlemen, and personal intercourse had not led him to form any very exalted notion of their acquirements or capacity.
"The Edinburgh Reviewers I like well as companions," he wrote, "and think little of as anything else. Elmsley has more knowledge and a sounder mind than any or all of them. Living in habits of intimate intercourse with such men as Rickman, William Taylor, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Scotch did certainly appear to me very pigmies—literatuli." Friendship might have slightly swayed his judgment; but there is no doubt, the great influence these writers possessed at that time, was owing more to the skill with which they directed their talent, than the talent itself. With minds highly cultivated and well disciplined, they were deficient in originality; clever in mastering the details of a subject, but at fault if higher faculties were needed; able men, indeed, but not the master spirits that they told the world they were.
Southey, in forwarding his objections to any alliance of the kind proposed, thus strongly reprobated the violent personalities that disgraced the conduct of that journal. "On subjects of moral or political importance, no man is more apt to speak in the very gall of bitterness than I am, and this habit is likely to go with me to the grave; but that sort of bitterness, in which he (Jeffrey) indulges, which tends directly to wound a man in his feelings, and injure him in his fame and fortune, appears to me utterly inexcusable. Now, though there would be no necessity that I should follow this example, yet every separate article in the 'Review' derives authority from the merit of all the others; and in this way, whatever of any merit I might insert there, would aid and abet opinions hostile to my own, and thus identify me with a system which I thoroughly disapprove. This is not said hastily. The emolument to be derived from writing at 10 guineas a sheet, Scotch measure, instead of £7, would be considerable; the pecuniary advantage, resulting from the different manner in which my future works would be handled, probably still more so. But my moral feelings must not be compromised." And in the following year, he expressed great pleasure on hearing that Sir Walter Scott had withdrawn his assistance from the periodical.
In "The Quarterly Review," established shortly afterwards, Southey found a more congenial field of employment. For a long series of years, he wrote regularly for its pages, and contributed more than any other individual writer to its permanent popularity and success. Nevertheless, his equanimity had to submit to the most vexatious trials. Gifford applied the editorial knife with slashing and imperturbable severity, and the spectacle of his mutilated phrases and opinions, touched him to the quick. He expostulated likewise against the harshness with which occasionally authors were treated, who were dragged before the editorial tribunal, as likewise on the disparaging tone assumed by the "Review" on matters pertaining to America; but his sentiments on such topics were unknown to or overlooked by the public at large, and as a prominent contributor he underwent much personal abuse for the very blemishes which he had anxiously endeavoured to remove.
In the summer of 1809, he received a severe shock by the sudden death of one of his daughters. His eldest boy had been dangerously ill, and had barely recovered before another child was struck. In relating the circumstance to a friend, he writes: "We lost Emma yesternight. I have five children; three of them at home, and two under my mother's care in heaven." As his expenses increased, he found it incumbent on him to think less of futurity, and more of the present hour; and periodical writing encroached upon the time he would otherwise have alloted to his more ambitious efforts. In 1808, Ballantyne the publisher had projected an " Annual Register," and requested Southey's co-operation. In 1809, Ballantyne again wrote, asking him to write the history of the Spanish affairs for that year; and afterwards, on being disappointed in one of his contributors, entrusted to him the historical department generally, with an allowance of £400 a-year. This, as yet, was the most profitable engagement he had entered into. He took an interest in the subject, and calculated that if it lasted two or three years his property in the Longmans' hands would clear itself, and he should be in a fair way of relieving himself from pecuniary uncertainties. The boldness of his views touching our policy in Spain, alarmed the timid acquiescence of "The Edinburgh Review," which recommended the most abject submission on the part of this country to the designs of the invincible Napoleon: and in somewhat strange discordance with its professions respecting the unlimited liberty of the press, it recommended the obnoxious journal for government prosecution, which hint, however, was wisely left unnoticed. This engagement was of short duration, as the affairs of the publisher rendered a discontinuance of the work imperative.
In the summer of 1811, a strange apparition appeared at the Lakes. Shelley, with his young wife, took up his abode there for a short time; and in his dreaming restlessness and Utopian enthusiasm, he seemed to Southey like the shadow of his wild former self. The two poets formed an acquaintance. The elder could sympathize with the younger, for he had himself passed through his agonizing phase; and Shelley, for the first time, fancied he had found one who could understand his nature. Like a meteor he flitted to disappear in other lands; but Southey watched his wanderings with charitable sorrow, and, notwithstanding angry words, and unjust accusations, always spoke of him with tenderness.
In 1813, Pye died. A semi-official offer of the laurel was made to Sir Walter Scott, who mentioned Southey as one who would adorn it by his talents, and to whom the additional income would be acceptable. A few years previously, Sir Walter had interested himself with his political friends, Mr. Canning and others, in favour of his brother bard. Southey had suggested the creation of the office of Historiographer as an appropriate one for him, but on inquiry, he found such a one already existed; and on the death of the person holding it, shortly afterwards, his application was anticipated. The appointment was honorary, there being no salary attached.
On the receipt of a letter from Sir Walter Scott, Southey proceeded to London, and had an interview with Croker. Relating the circumstance he says: "He (Croker) had spoken to the Prince, and the Prince observing that I had written some good things in favour of the Spaniards, said the office should be given me. You will admire the reason, and infer from it that I ought to have been made Historiographer because I had written 'Madoc.'" It is singular how seldom poetical merit of any kind has been regarded as the qualification necessary for holding the solitary office in England professedly tenable only by a poet. It was on the occasion of this visit to London that Southey met Lord Byron at Holland House; and the prejudices, perhaps just ones, he had conceived against the noble poet melted away amid the fascinations of his prepossessing manners. "I saw a man," he writes, "whom in voice, manner and countenance, I liked very much more than either his character or his writings had given me reason to expect." On the acceptance of his new office, he had intimated some hope that the disagreeable requirements of annual celebration might be in some degree dispensed with, and was led to expect that some such rational arrangement would be made. But no reformation of the kind was attempted, and after waiting some weeks, he was admitted to be sworn in, in the customary way. He then left London, resolved to acquit himself to the best of his ability; but to exercise his discretion about giving to the world his official inspiration.
The regularity of home life was occasionally relieved by the visits of tourists, mountain pic-nics, and other similar festivities. When the news arrived of the victory at Waterloo, it was resolved to celebrate the event on the top of Skiddaw. The country round poured forth to the gathering. Old and young, peer and peasant, climbed the ascent; and the huge bonfire of blazing tar-barrels on its summit darkened the skies by its excessive brilliancy. There they prepared the historical dishes of Old England, the wine-cup circulated freely, and with every toast, the report of their cannon was lost in the louder tumult of their vociferous cheering. Large flaming balls of tow and turpentine were sent rolling down the mountain-side, and the calm still night was especially propitious for the revel. An incident has been commemorated, not very poetical, but not on that account the less amusing. On a demand being made for more punch, it was discovered that the kettle had been upset. Water at such a place was not a commodity to be recklessly wasted, and a lady of the party indignantly commenced a vigorous search for the offender. An officious informer revealed that one of the gentlemen had done it, and that he had a red cloak on. Wordsworth had thrown round his shoulders a garment of that colour, belonging to Mrs. Southey. After the accident—for the culprit was no less a man than he—he had mingled with the crowd, and flattered himself the contretemps had been unobserved. But the pride of the purple was his debasement. Miss Barker informed Southey of the discovery, who expertly got his party together, gradually encircled the guilty bard, and suddenly saluted his ears with the following banter, chanted in full chorus: "'Twas you that kicked the kettle down, 'twas you, Sir, you." They all returned safely about midnight, a line of fire from the dripping torches tracing the course of their descent.
At the close of the war, society in England was in a most agitated state. The prodigious sacrifices made by the country had been lessened in popular estimation at the time, by the chivalrous sentiment of the people, and the hardships they would entail forgotten in the excitement of the strife; while an artificial prosperity was produced in certain departments of trade, by the very expenses of the contest. When European commerce was set free, and things relapsed to their natural level, much alarm, miscalculation and misery ensued. Public obligations remained at their original standard, and consequently pressed more heavily through the rapid rise in price of all necessary commodities, while the crop of the following year fell considerably below the usual average. With distress came disaffection, and interested men were not backward in fanning the embers into a flame, and in preaching insubordination and irreligion. Their pernicious doctrines spread to the most retired nooks and corners of the land. "A club of atheists met twice a-week at an alehouse at Keswick, and the landlady of their way of thinking." And this state of things was general. Southey combated the policy of disaffection with unfaltering energy, and the invective with which he was assailed sufficiently testifies to the dread he inspired, and the good it was feared he would effect. He advocated with untiring assiduity, as the surest means of cutting the ground from under the feet of demagogues, and of enlightening the people to their real position, a more general system of education based upon religious teaching, the diffusion of cheap and wholesome literature, and the importance of training-schools for the neglected swarms of children that were left to wallow in premature vice and wretchedness in the streets of our more populous towns. He urged the establishment of savings' banks, some organized system of emigration, and the imperative interference of government in behalf of the operatives and children that the factory task-masters held in less regard than the machinery they tended. Many of the plans he proposed have been since adopted, and are now in active and beneficial operation, while kindlier feelings prevail between employers and employed, with a juster notion of their relative claims upon each other.
In the midst of these earnest endeavours for the public good, he was thunderstruck by reading in the papers an advertisement of the publication of "Wat Tyler," and received a copy of the drama in an envelope addressed to Robert Southey, Poet-Laureate and Renegade. This notorious production had been written in his hot youth, and thrown aside in neglect. It was now for the first time formally published through the disreputable contrivance of a dissenting minister; and so great was the sensation excited, and so cunningly had his adversaries watched their timeliest opportunity, that sixty thousand copies are reported to have been sold, and he became the daily theme of vituperation, calumny and abuse. Lord Brougham attacked him, with characteristic impetuosity, in the House of Commons; and a Mr. Smith, the member for Norwich, arming himself with a number of the "Quarterly" in one hand, and the obnoxious poem in the other, followed wrathfully and dully in the wake. An application was made to the Court of Chancery for an injunction to restrain the publication of the work; but Lord Eldon, considering that a person could not recover in damages for a work which is in its nature calculated to do an injury to the public, refused to grant it till Southey should have established his right to the property by an action at law. He accordingly left matters to take their course, well knowing that the trial of all things is in the end, but he abated not one jot of his ardour. Renegade, apostate, hireling, these were the epithets that were applied to his name. He, so poor and self-denying, was accused of heaping up wealth by the interested desertion of his principles. "The Edinburgh Review" attacked him. "The Morning Chronicle" ranted about "his impious and blasphemous obscenities;" and he was esteemed so formidable an antagonist, that Cobbett proscribed him by name, as one of the persons who, when the radicals should have effected a reformation, were, as one of the first measures of the new government, to be executed!
About this time, through some informality in an uncle's testament, he was the loser of an estate of the estimated value of £1000 a-year. Twice before the wanton caprice of testators had deprived him of property which the law, had it been allowed to take its course, would have given him as heir; and now the law interposed to take away an estate which the bequest of a relative would have conferred.
At the Oxford commemoration, in 1820, he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University, and never was honour better merited. His writings in defence of the Established Church had been effective and opportune. That, with all other institutions, had been fiercely attacked, not through any desire to reform, but in the wanton lust to destroy; and Southey, whose wildest boyish dreams had had for their end the amelioration of society, could not tolerate the raving atheism which struggled to confound vice and virtue, good and evil, in one wide and lawless anarchy. After the ceremony at the theatre, and a collation at Brasenose, given by the Vice-Chancellor, he took a solitary walk in Christ Church meadow, where he had not been for six-and-twenty years. He describes the day as one of the most melancholy of his life, and so it may well have been. There, where revisiting the haunts of yesterday, we pace the cloisters, and meet only unknown faces, while strange names over the well-known doors arrest one's almost mechanical ingress; how glaring the change wrought by a quarter of a century! He looked up to the windows of his old rooms at Balliol. Of those who had so frequently assembled there in disputatious converse, some were dead, and all were scattered; and he too, how altered from what he was! The melancholy strain emanating from internal causes is almost the first we hear through his history. He had reached the zenith of his course. The exultation of hope was abating; and his eye now turned, not upwards, but toward the gathering shadows of the evening.
It was about this time the quarrel with Lord Byron reached its acme. In 1819 the two first cantos of "Don Juan" had been published, but the dedication was repressed. It, however, got into print, and was hawked about the streets of London. Southey, in the preface to his "Vision of Judgment," made a severe attack on the doctrine and the writings of a class of authors, of whom Lord Byron was the most eminent, and the most influential. In an article in the "Quarterly," speaking incidentally of the Jungfrau, he said it was the place where Manfred met the devil and bullied him. Lord Byron was nettled, and retaliated. Southey replied by a letter in "The Courier," (5th of June, 1822). His opponent, who was then residing at Pisa, forwarded a challenge to England, which his friend Douglas Kinnaird had the good sense to retain, and the circumstance was never communicated to Southey. It was a quarrel between the petulant spleen of Lord Byron, and the outraged moral feelings of the British public, speaking through Southey. The former was the aggressor throughout, and there can be no doubt on which side was the right; but unfortunately Southey, by his egregious self-pretension, laid himself open to much of the sarcasm which, by its liveliness and force, still excites a smile during the perusal.
During the summer of the year following that of his visit to Oxford, he stayed a few weeks at Netherall the seat of his friend Mr. Senhouse. The family had resided uninterruptedly on this spot from the time of Edward II., when a part of the existing building was known to have been standing; and how long it had stood anterior to that time there is no record to say. Southey's bed-room was in the tower, the walls of which were nine feet thick. It was a bishop of this family who had preached the coronation sermon of Charles I. from the text which was afterwards thought ominous: "I will give him a crown of glory." A pleasing domestic incident, related to Southey on the spot, may not be deemed out of place here. At the time of the great Rebellion the family of the owner consisted of two sons only. The younger went to stand by his King in battle, the elder was detained at home by sickness. The heir of the house died, and the bereaved parents were anxious for their only son to return, lest their ancient line should become extinct. A trusty dependant who held under them was sent to persuade him back; but the son was deaf to all his reasons, and prevailed upon the man to follow his fortunes in the war. They were at Marston Moor together, and at Naseby, where young Senhouse was severely wounded, and left for dead upon the field with a fractured skull. After the battle, the follower went to search for the body of his master, and to his surprise found life not extinct. He instantly removed him, obtained medical aid, and tended him with watchful care, until with delight he witnessed his complete recovery. In token of gratitude, his lands were enfranchised, and the descendants of each still dwell on their respective freeholds.
Southey's reputation had spread slowly upon the continent; and of his poems, "Roderick, the last of the Goths," appears to have received the most favour. A French translation of this work was forwarded to Southey, with his life prefixed. The present was accompanied by a letter from the lady to whom the book had been dedicated, informing Southey of the principle upon which his biography had been compiled, It seems the publisher, with the wilfulness common to the class, had insisted on the necessity of their work being preceded by a life of its original author. In vain was it represented that there were no adequate materials for such a production. "What matters that?" said the pertinacious publisher. "Write it notwithstanding. Invent a little—invent—whether it's true or whether it's false, who'll take the trouble to inquire?" And upon this hint, wrote the lady, the work was accomplished.
A few years afterwards, he received a Dutch translation of a part of the same poem by Mrs. Bilderdijk, accompanied by a Latin letter from her husband, a veteran author of sixty years' standing. The work was dedicated to Southey, in some pathetic lines occasioned by the death of a son at sea, and she had applied some stanzas in his poem to herself before hearing of her loss. The circumstance induced Southey to decide upon a tour in Holland in the summer of 1825, purposing to visit Leyden, where his esteemed correspondent resided. He was accompanied by Neville White, Henry Taylor, and a young officer of the name of Malet. They crossed from Dover to Boulogne, visited Waterloo; and at Brussels Southey was delighted to find his old friend Verbeyst, the celebrated bookseller, thriving well in the world. He had purchased from him, on a former occasion, a copy of the "Acta Sanctorum," a light work of fifty-two folios for his evening reading, the arrival of which at Keswick formed an epoch in his life. He again roamed through his spacious shop of three hundred thousand volumes, selected his purchases, and quaffed the choice claret and Burgundy, the hospitable bibliopole produced in honour of his illustrious visitor.
A slight mishap interrupted his journey. His foot had been chafed, and became so inflamed, that at Antwerp he was compelled to resign himself to the hands of a surgeon. He remained there several days, and suffered more pain in a week than he had previously experienced through his whole life. On his arrival at Leyden, he found himself unable to proceed further, and intended to repose himself at an hotel. Immediately that his arrival was known, Mr. Bilderdijk hastened forth to offer the hospitalities of his house. Southey felt some hesitation to trouble him with an invalid, but succumbed to the pressing solicitation, and at length frankly accepted the offer. He was extremely anxious to see Mrs. Bilderdijk, Mrs. Bilderdijk no less anxious to see him. The learned lady was not superior to the prevailing weaknesses of the sex; and to her eager question respecting his personal appearance, her husband answered that he looked as Mr. Southey ought to look; a reply which delighted the inquirer and gratified the poet.
Southey remained under their roof three weeks. Mr. Taylor stayed at Leyden with him, while the rest proceeded onward, proposing to re-assemble at some distant point in the route. Never had Southey a more joyous holiday. His minutest tastes were consulted, while his hostess was most considerate and assiduous in her capacity of nurse; and with Bilderdijk's broken English and Southey's Dutch, the conversation never flagged. Our author proposed to repay his host for his cheerful entertainment as he had repaid his friend Cottle years before. He sent for a complete set of his "Poems," and his "History of Brazil;" an inexhaustible source of exhilaration for all coming years at Leyden. They parted with mutual regrets. "No part of his life," he observed, "ever seemed to pass away more rapidly or pleasantly."
Were there truth in the ancient notion of the Divinity of Fortune, we might not inaptly imagine that the faithless Goddess, in her sad irony, had indulged him with this short glimpse of unusual happiness, in bitter mockery of the impending sorrow. He turned his steps homewards about August, hastening to communicate his joy to those whom he knew would be anxious to participate in it; but his spirits fell when he caught the blank aspect of the faces that were waiting to receive him, and he heard with a pang the unexpected tidings that his daughter Isabel was lying dangerously ill. He had lost the elasticity of youth, and grief now took a firmer hold of his frame. Day after day was spent in anxious solicitude; his spirits rose or fell with the flickering malady of his child; and his son records, in an affecting passage, how he paced the garden in uncontrollable anguish, and gathered his household around him to prayer when all was over. Ere her remains were laid in the dust, the sorrowing father addressed a letter to her surviving sisters, in which occurs the following passage:
"And for the dear child who is departed, God knows that I never heard her name mentioned, nor spoke, nor thought of her without affection and delight. Yet this day, when I am about to see her mortal remains committed earth to earth, it is a grief for me to think that I should ever by a harsh or hasty word have given her even a momentary sorrow, which might have been spared."
This was the first serious blow to the happiness of that cheerful circle. The gap was too painfully visible for its effects to be readily effaced, and Mrs. Southey never recovered completely from the shock.
Had Southey regarded literature but as a stepping-stone to worldly consideration, he might have found an opiate for domestic affliction in the excitement of public rivalry. During his absence in Holland, he had been elected, through the influence of Lord Radnor, to represent in Parliament the borough of Downton. A report to this effect reached him while at Brussels, and on his return, he found a letter awaiting him, announcing the event. Referring to his "Book of the Church," the writer adverted to the principles there so perspicuously advocated, proposing to him the single requisition, as a public man, "Ut sustineat firmiter, strenue et continue, quæ ipse bene docuit esse sustinenda." But he was not possessed of the necessary property qualification, and a plan was proposed to purchase one by subscription, in which Sir Robert Inglis greatly interested himself. He was amazed on hearing of this further endeavour to induce him to enter Parliament. "I rubbed my eyes," he writes, "to ascertain that I was awake, and that this was no dream." But he declined to countenance any such attempt to divert him from his settled course of life, and wrote to the Speaker, announcing his election as void, on account of his ineligibility.
In 1829, his household was further diminished, by the marriage of Miss Coleridge, who, with her mother, quitted his roof, after an abode there of twenty-six years; and not long afterwards his eldest daughter married, and left to reside in Sussex.
In October of the following year he paid one of his customary visits to London, and entered more into society than was his wont on such occasions. He dined with the Duchess of Kent, and was gratified by the Princess Victoria, then but eleven years of age, thanking him for the pleasure she had received in reading his "Life of Lord Nelson." He dined also with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and received invitations from the Duke of Wellington and other prominent men. At the levee, to his surprise, his hand was grasped and warmly shaken by the Lord Chancellor Brougham, who seemed to have forgotten his former excessive animosity, and he shortly afterwards received from his Lordship a letter, proposing two questions for his consideration; namely, whether literature would gain by the active encouragement of government, and if so, in what way such encouragement could be most advantageously given? Southey, in his reply, observes that co-operative labour seemed necessary for large works, and that some national institution would enlist sharp-shooting pamphleteers in the cause of order, but it is doubtful whether with our present manners and modes of thinking any such organization is practicable; and if practicable, whether it would be productive of any essential benefit. "With regard to prizes," he writes, "methinks they are better left to schools and colleges. Honours are worth something to scientific men, because they are conferred on such in other countries, while at home there are precedents for them in Newton and Davy, and the and surgeons have them. In my judgment, men of letters are better without them, unless they are rich enough to bequeath to their family a good estate with the bloody hand, and sufficiently men of the world to think such distinctions appropriate. For myself, if we had a Guelphic Order, I should choose to remain a Ghibelline."
To these sentiments we heartily subscribe, and strongly protest against the view put forward by a witty contemporary novelist, who contends, that a book-maker ought to be knighted, because his wife would like to be called "My Lady." Authorship has been regarded as a profession, it is daily degenerating into a trade; it ought to be neither. Let worldly honours be granted for actions they may not incongruously embellish. To literary men, as such, they are absurd and out of place.
But few of Southey's works proved lucrative. Their tardy sale stands in remarkable contrast with the rapidity with which successive editions were exhausted of those of his friend and fellow-labourer Sir Walter Scott. In December, 1828, writing to Mr. Bedford, he says: "For myself I am very far from complaining of Government, to which indeed I owe much more than to the public. You know what His Majesty is pleased to allow me through your hands. Now, from the said public, my last year's proceeds were, for 'The Book of the Church' and the 'Vindiciæ,' per John Murray, nil; and for all the rest of my works in Longman's hands, about £26. In this account, you know, the 'Peninsular War' and the 'Life of Nelson' are not included, being Murray's property. But the whole proceeds of my former labours were what I have stated them, for the year ending at Midsummer last: so that if it were not for reviewing, it would be impossible for me to pay my current expenses. As some explanation, I should tell you that 'Roderick' and 'Thalaba' and 'Madoc,' are in new editions, which have not yet cleared themselves. They are doing this very slowly, except 'Roderick,' for which, if it had been clear, I should have received £35." Money, although he was in such pressing need of it, was never his immediate concern and object. Perhaps had he allowed his necessities more directly to influence his pen, the public, as well as himself, would have been the gainers. He might have chosen subjects more attractive, and have condensed his efforts into a compass more suitable to the wants of a hasty and impatient generation. But there was a nobleness even in his error. And this lofty disdain of mere popularity becomes the more valuable in its teaching, as instances of it become more rare.
Southey, without being reckless or extravagant, was at times careless of his resources, considering their limited extent; and any whim that might add to the stock of his books, he felt it almost impossible to resist. In Mrs. Southey he found a helpmate, to whose wise and prudent economy he was chiefly indebted for that domestic serenity he so dearly prized. But to maintain it, was for her a constant source of depressing perplexity. The expenses were large, the income uncertain and precarious, and when at last the weight of affliction was superadded to her other cares, the mind gave way, exhausted by the anxieties of her ceaseless though unobtrusive exertions.
In the autumn of 1834, Southey undertook ajourney. Writing from York, he says: "I have been parted from my wife by something more than death. Forty years has she been the life of my life; and I have left her this day in a lunatic asylum." Yet he could discover a cause for gratitude. "I have much to be thankful for under this visitation. For the first time in my life" (and he was now sixty-one years of age) "I am so far beforehand with the world, that my means are provided for the whole of next year; and I can meet this additional expenditure, considerable in itself, without any difficulty." In the midst of this affliction he received a letter from Sir Robert Peel. "I have advised the King," writes the Prime Minister, "to adorn the distinction of baronetage with a name the most eminent in literature, and which has claims to respect and honour which literature alone can never confer." A private note accompanied the letter, containing assurances of respect, and requesting to know how he could advance his interests. Southey declined the honour, his restricted means would have rendered it a mockery. "Writing for a livelihood," he observed, "a livelihood is all that I have gained; for having also something better in view, and never having courted popularity, nor written for the mere sake of gain, it has not been possible for me to lay by anything."
Sir Robert Peel was doubtless surprised at the disclosure; for it was a prevalent belief that he had amassed large sums by the sale of his works, and he lost no time in performing one act of grace at least during this short tenure of office. He offered him £300 a-year from the Civil List Pension Fund, which he granted on "a public principle, the recognition of literary eminence as a public claim." This timely assurance of a definite income relieved Southey from all future anxiety respecting the supply of his daily necessities. It rendered him also independent of the publishers; and he congratulated himself on being able henceforth to devote himself entirely to his great works, and in particular to his "History of Portugal;" and to partake of his favourite relaxation of travel whenever failing health demanded it.
After Mrs. Southey had been about a year at York, she was so far recovered as to make her return home a desirable step. "If her illusions," writes her husband, "are like dreams to her, the reality is like a dream to me, but one from which there is no awaking." He devoted himself to her care with a sorrowful satisfaction. He was not one to shrink from an obligation, and devolve upon his daughters or dependants a task he deemed it was his more especial duty to undertake. She had made it the pride of her life to minister to him in his health, he would minister to her in her helplessness; and all that human concern could do, he did, to alleviate her hapless condition.
In the summer of 1836 his old schoolfellow Grosvenor Bedford, accompanied by his niece, stayed with him; and although his visitor was almost deaf, they managed to have much talk of old times. They had been acquainted from 1788, familiar from 1790, intimate from 1791. Rev. Edward Levett, another Westminster contemporary, visited him likewise at the same time. At the summer assizes this year he was subpœnaed with other literary men to appear as a witness, on a celebrated will case then pending, involving the Castle Hornby estate, of from £6000 to £7000 a-year. His assiduity towards his afflicted wife had prevented him from taking his accustomed recreation, and he embraced the occasion of this compulsory absence, to make, in company with his son, a rapid trip to the West of England. He visited, with childish curiosity, all his old haunts; the house in which he was born, the schools to which he had been sent, the church, Miss Tyler's house: Martin Hall, his former abode at Westbury, he was unable to recognise. During these researches, his friend Walter Savage Landor was an unfailing companion.
On the 16th November, 1837, his wife died. For some time previously she had been daily sinking, and the last glimmer of consciousness seemed to be the assurance that she was tended by those who best loved her. During the three years she had laboured under her affliction, the anxieties of Southey had been relieved by the exertions they occasioned. The performance of those duties which, as a husband, he conceived it would have been selfish and unworthy to relegate to others, had diverted his mind from brooding over his increasing calamities. But when the solemn blank in his home and heart, caused by the bereavement, first presented itself broadly to his feelings, his spirit sank within him, and he felt in truth that "the life of his life" had departed. His accustomed occupations afforded not the relief one would have expected they would have done from his habits and manners. The bride of his youth, the companion of his manhood; she had shared all his joys, had alleviated all his sorrows. With her, happen what might, there was hope; without her, what worth hoping for? It was too late now to begin the journey of life afresh—there was no inspiration in the future, and the past was a vanished dream. But what had already transpired was but as the rehearsal of another and similar tragedy. Mental anxiety had unhinged the faculties of the wife, over-exertion prostrated those of the husband. The first indications of imbecility were so slight, the approaches so gradual, that they escaped the attention of his nearest friends. Failure of memory, confusion of time and place, starts of irritability so foreign to his nature, these were all overlooked at the time, but too faithfully remembered when the appalling reality broke upon them.
In the latter end of 1838, he was urged to undertake a short trip on the continent; and a party of six met in London, and started on a tour through Normandy and Brittany. On their return to England, they separated; his son, who had been one of the party, proceeding to Oxford; and Southey purposing to stay at Buckland, the residence of Miss Caroline Bowles, on his way home. He afterwards proceeded to London, and the change in his condition became painfully perceptible. It was hoped, however, that the derangement might be but temporary, and that his faculties would be re-invigorated by repose; but the bow had lost its spring, the tendon was too fretted to be re-braced. He ceased from his labours—with him how sad a proof of sheer inability to proceed!—the over-tasked brain refused all further exercise, the hand declined for ever its habitual occupation.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the alienation of mind became complete. Still would he wander among his books, and fix a vacant gaze on those changeless friends of fifty years; take down from its shelf some well-worn volume, and tenderly replace it; and long he continued mechanically to read, after all power of comprehension was gone. Still, too, visions of great works yet unaccomplished floated across his phantasy. "The History of the Monastic Orders," "The Doctor," and above all, "The History of Portugal." This, the darling dream of his life—the first high effort he had meditated in boyhood among the beauties of the clime it was to celebrate—"the Doric monument of eternal durability" that should fix his name imperishably in the world's annals—was still a dream—a promise unfulfilled. We need not linger over the sad picture. He gradually became weaker and weaker, and died, after a short fever, on the 21st March, 1843.
They laid him in the quiet churchyard at Crosthwaite, within the shadow of the home he loved so well. And not alone, for by his side rests sleeping his gentle, his all-trusting Edith. They were as one in life, in death they are not divided. There, too, are the children, who, ere soiled by sin or sorrow, preceded to their blissful beatitude, to give him welcome when his toil should be over. Cities may rear their votive tablets to his memory, but his remains could not have a more appropriate resting-place.
It would be incommensurate with the plan of this work to give any detailed account of Southey's literary labours. His writings alone constitute a library. We reckon forty-five independent works, one hundred and twenty-six articles in the "Quarterly," and fifty-two in the "Annual Review." The historical part of "The Edinburgh Annual Register" for 1808 and the two following years was by him; and innumerable other pieces, scattered over various periodical publications, proceeded from his indefatigable pen. Will the prize be his he so ardently coveted? In early life he beheld, in a dream, "the Elysium of the Poets, and that more sacred part of it in which Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Spenser, Camoens, and Milton were assembled. While I was regarding them," he wrote, "Fame came hurrying by, with her arm full of laurels, and asking, in an indignant voice, if there was no poet who would deserve them? Upon which I reached out my hand, snatched at them, and awoke." Later he observed: "One overwhelming propensity has formed my destiny, and marred all prospects of rank and wealth; but it has made me happy, and it will make me immortal."
We may not antedate the decision of posterity, but we think the dream of the boy a safer omen than the assumption of the man. Nature had gifted him with unparalleled facility—alike his blessing and his bane. Its effect is conspicuous in all he accomplished—epic, essay, history—of all the most alluring charm, and the most fatal defect. The poems he blushed not to compare with "Paradise Lost;" the histories he delivered to the world "in full reliance of the approbation of those ages to which they were bequeathed," are long narrative pieces, invented and compiled too often with little judgment, by a consummate master of language, and unalluring from the remoteness of their subject-matter. "The value of an historical work" he deemed "to be in proportion to the store of facts which it first embodied;" and under this fatal misconception, his ponderous quartos increased in bulk, and he fancied that, while recapitulating incidents, he was writing history.
Thus his histories are mere specimens of prose narrative, manufactured, like his epics, by daily process. His system of reading and writing was so unremitting and so unvaried, that his mind at last resembled a machine, capable of turning out its required piecework, with mechanical regularity. His reflective faculty was deficient in power, because he never exercised it. Living apart from the world, he studied not man in his actions, and his perpetual reading left him no time to study human nature in himself; and thus his history is deficient in the deeper and more essential elements, and while poring over his prolonged pages, we sigh for the masterly portraiture of Clarendon, or the wide and vigorous grasp of thought that informs the great production of Gibbon.
His qualities as a poet were of a high order, but not of the highest. He possessed great imaginative power, his language is clear and vigorous, free from vagueness and the shallow affectation of profundity, while the elaborate machinery of the ancient mythologies he handles with a Titan's grasp. But through all his efforts, there is a something wanting which is indescribable, but which is the soul of poetry. They are but as the lifeless copy, which we leave for the breathing original. It is the presence of this element, which in spite of their defects will render immortal the writings of his gifted antagonist Lord Byron, those writings which express most tersely the exaggerated passion of a wonderful epoch, and constitute our true "revolutionary epic."
And yet, no writer ever had a higher opinion of his own capacity. This self-confidence breaks out perpetually through the entire range of his correspondence. Writing in his twenty-seventh year, he says: "In literature, as in the playthings of schoolboys, and the frippery of women, there are the ins and outs of fashion. Sonnets and satires have their day—and my 'Joan of Arc' has revived the Epomania that Boileau cured the French of 120 years ago; but it is not every one that can shoot with the bow of Ulysses, and the gentlemen who think they can bend the bow because I make the string twang, will find themselves somewhat disappointed." Of "Thalaba" he says: "Such as it is, I know no poem which can claim a place between it and the 'Orlando.' Let it be weighed with the 'Oberon;' perhaps were I to speak out, I should not dread a trial with Ariosto; my proportion of ore to dross is greater."
Writing some years later of "Madoc," he observes: "Taylor has said, it is the best English poem that has left the press since the 'Paradise Lost'—indeed this is not exaggerated praise, for unfortunately there is no competition." Later still we read: "If I do not greatly deceive myself, my 'History of Portugal' will be one of the most curious books of its kind that has ever appeared;" and of the Brazilians, he affirms, that his history of their country would "be to them what the work of Herodotus is to Europe." Failure only made him hug the closer this deluding support. If a book fell still-born from the press, the fault lay not with the writer, but in the obtuseness of the readers; another generation would discern its merit. A little reflection might have dissipated much of this egotistical vanity. It reveals the secret of the pertinacious ridicule and opposition he experienced through life; perhaps it is the sole secret of Lord Byron's contemptuous hatred. But though it produced him much annoyance and ill-will, it occasioned probably a far larger counterbalance of happiness: and if the nerve be too delicate to bear the sharp light of truth, let the blind man dream on in his blindness.
To his periodical writings too much praise cannot be given. Easy and flowing, they were exactly adapted to their end, not tasking the mind by any severe ratiocination or profound disquisition, but evolving the different bearings of the subject with pliancy and address, and free from the miserable flippancy some reviewers so marvellously mistake for wit. They were his most popular essays, but he regretted the labour they required, and grudged every moment of time that was not devoted to writing for some future and imaginary public. A proposal was once made to him, that he should superintend "The Times" newspaper. The remuneration offered was on the most liberal scale. It is seldom any want of discernment is manifested on such a subject in that quarter, and we think it would have been Southey's proper sphere. His laborious industry would have been beneficially exerted in a noble field. A manly and generous tone would have characterized the paper, and his articles would have been of the very highest newspaper merit. But a post of such importance, and the exercise of so vast an instrumentality, presented no temptation to his ambition. His efforts there would have been necessarily ephemeral, whereas he wrote for fame. We question if such aspirants ever obtain their desired reward.
"Nor Fame I slight, nor for her favours call:
She comes unlooked-for, if she comes at all."
Thus sang one who has secured the guerdon. Had Homer been apprehensive about his fame, the world would never have been charmed with the "Iliad."
We have already noticed his want of self-concentration. This abeyance of the reflective faculty will aid in explaining the absurd extravagance of his earlier political views; it will detract, we fear, from the merit of his later labours in the cause of constitutional government. He was swayed primarily by the feelings. When once a cause had taken hold of his heart, he then sought for arguments to enforce it, and urged his convictions with a zeal glowing as with the warmth of personal interest. This will also explain his aversion to scientific pursuits, and his dislike of scientific men, notwithstanding his life-long friendship with Sir Humphrey Davy, and others. "Generally speaking," he says, "I have little liking for men of science; their pursuits serve to deaden the imagination and harden the heart; they are so accustomed to analyze and anatomatize everything, to understand or fancy they understand whatever comes before them, that they frequently become mere materialists; account for everything by mechanism and motion; and would put out of the world all that makes the world endurable. I do not undervalue their knowledge nor the utility of their discoveries, but I do not like the men. My own nature requires something more than they teach, it pants after things unseen." There may be truth in the above extract, there must be error.
In person he was above the middle height, with dark brown eyes, abundant hair, large arched eyebrows, and prominent mouth. His exterior was prepossessing. "To have his head and shoulders," said Lord Byron, with amusing flippancy, "I would almost have written his 'Sapphics.'" His manners were gentle, and free from all eccentricity. He was open and unconstrained in conversation among friends, though generally silent in mixed society. He disliked arguing, was tender of the feelings of others, and directed his attention to the subjects of conversation rather than the persons with whom he was conversing.
His house was his workshop. He ate, slept, lived amid his tools. Six or seven hundred volumes crowded his bed-room; upwards of two thousand adorned his sitting-room. This room was his favourite, the scene of his greatest labours. Here we see him day after day at his desk, "working hard and getting little—a bare maintenance, and hardly that; writing poems and history for posterity with his whole heart and soul; one daily progressing in learning, not so learned as he is poor, not so poor as proud, not so proud as happy." He was always collecting. Passages and attics were gradually filled with his accumulating volumes, which swelled at last to the number of fourteen thousand. One apartment was appropriated to old and disfigured books. These were carefully covered with cotton by the ladies of the house, who indulged their taste, their criticism, or their humour in the selection of the colours and patterns; enveloping a Quaker's book in drab, and so on. This room was jocosely called the Cottonian Library.
His method was peculiar. On the arrival of a parcel of books he would rapidly run through each volume, and mark all the passages he would ever be likely to want. The book was then allotted its destined place, and his memory was so retentive, that he was never afterwards at a loss where to look for any particular information he might require.
The scene of his labour was likewise that of his happiness and of his highest honour. He had a thoroughly English appreciation of home. There centred all his temporal ambition. As a member of the social commonwealth, his exalted dignity is the glory of modern literature. He was generous to a fault. His services were always at the requisition of the needy. Strangers applied, and were sure of relief. Relatives were unfortunate, his purse was always open. Coleridge, incomprehensibly callous to the most powerful of human instincts, coldly abandoned wife and children; Southey was more to them than a husband and a father. Let the character of the man stand out in its deserved prominence, simple in his tastes and open-hearted, to shame a luxurious and a selfish age: enthusiastic in his calling, to kindle a like flame in a generation, that, amid dissolving institutions and opinions, seems destitute of any settled aim and conviction. There is no need here to ask in behalf of genius an indulgent oblivion of vice and immorality. His most notorious failings were venial, solely indicating his common union with human imperfection. His career may be accused of inconsistencies, his mental organization may betray some glaring defects; but he has left behind him a name that will long stimulate by its ennobling example, and a reputation of which his countrymen may be justly proud.