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[ROBERT SOUTHEY was born at Bristol on Aug. 12, 1774. He was edu. cated at Westminster School and at Balliol College, Oxford; and after some years of wandering and unsettlement he went to live, in 1803, at Greta Hall, near Keswick, which remained his home till his death in 1843. In 1813 he was made poet laureate. Besides his countless prose works, his volumes of verse were very numerous ; the chief of them are:-Poems by Robert Lovell and Robert Southey, of Balliol College, Oxford, 2 vols., 1795-9; Joan of Arc, 1796; Poems, 1797; Thalaba the Destroyer, 1801; Madoc, 1805; Meirical Tales and other Poems, 1805 ; The Curse of Kehama, 1810 ; Roderick, the last of the Goths, 1814; A Vision of Judgment, 1821.]
In the year 1837, two years before his brain softened and his mind went to ruin, Southey superintended a collective edition of his poems in ten volumes.
Of his five narrative poems, Joan of Arc, written at nineteen years of age (1793-94), was, in his own just estimation, the least worthy to succeed ; and yet it gave him what he calls a 'Baxter's shove into his right place in the world.'
Thalaba came next ; 'the wild and wondrous song ;' delightful in its kind, as a Tale of the Arabian Nights is delightful ; but wanting, as all stories in which supernatural agencies play a leading part must be, in one sort of charm,—that which results from a sense of art exercised in the fulfilment of a law. For when the law of Nature is set aside, the poet's fancy may wander at its own sweet will.'
To a poem thus lawless in its incidents and accidents, Southey thought that a rythmic structure of blank verse almost equally lawless was appropriate. He does not deny that regular blank verse is superior ; he says of it in one of his prefaces,—'Take it in all its gradations, from the elaborate rhythm of Milton, down to its loosest structure in the early dramatists, I believe there is no measure comparable to it, either in our own or in any other
language, for might, and majesty, and flexibility and compass.'
In that beloved solitude !
Flow with cool current o'er his cheek?
With lids half closed he lies,
Dreaming of days to come.
Now licks his listless hand;
Book III. 17. Southey in his school-days at Westminster had conceived the design of founding a poem on each of the more important mythologies known to the world. Thalaba was founded on the Mahometan; and Kehama followed, founded on the Hindoo. For Kehama he had less expectation of success, inasmuch as it rambles farther still beyond the range of human sympathies. It had an advantage, however, of which he seems to have been unconscious,—that of being in rhyme. This he valued by its cost to himself, which was apparently next to nothing ; he says in a letter to me that 'rhyme suggests more thoughts than it baulks ;' but it is to rhyme probably that the greater success of Kehama was owing
In the one poem, as well as in the other, though we are carried far and wide into other worlds than this, we meet from time to time with some penetrating insight into human life and nature as it exists here below :
•Be of good heart, and may thy sleep be sweet,
Ladurlad said ; . . . Alaş! that cannot be
To one whose days are days of misery.
Ereenia, rescued in the dreams of night!
Fear in her heart all is not as it seems;
Then from unsettled slumber start, and hear
Kehama was begun in 1801-2, resumed in 1806, and completed in 1809. Madoc had been written before Kehama was begun ; but mistaking it in those days for the greatest poem he should ever write, he laid it aside till he should have time to reconstruct and in great part to rewrite it ; and it was not published till 1805. It has the merit of a varied melody and an easy, fluent and graceful narrative diction ; but of his long poems it was the least successful.
Roderick was the most so. Perhaps the moral grandeur of the theme may have given it that pre-eminence, as much as its tragic interests. The subjugation, for a season, of a whole people, resulting from a single and momentary sin of the passions,—what may be charitably called a casualty of sin,-on the part of an otherwise virtuous sovereign,—the slaughter of the Christians by the Moors in the eight days' fight on the banks of Chrysus, -the unknown and almost unwilling escape of the King when the battle was over,-his deep remorse and self-inflicted penance of years in a solitary hermitage whilst supposed to have been killed,—the dream in which his mother appeared to him and bade him to go forth and deliver his country from the Moors, -his departure and encounter with Adosinda, sole survivor of the massacre of Auria,-her story and the passion for revenge, both personal and patriotic, with which it inspired him,—are all sublimely conceived and admirably told. Scarcely less so are his adventures when, wasted by austerities and in the habit of a priest, he passed through the country on his mission, meeting many old friends, but known for the man he was only by his dog,-his ultimate triumph over the Moors in the battle in which, on the inadvertent utterance of his once familiar war-cry, he was enthusiastically recognised by’his army,—and thereupon his instant disappearance, whither no one knew, till, after the lapse of some centuries, a humble tomb was discovered within a hermitage in the neighbourhood of Viseu with his name inscribed upon it.
In the versification, Southey has availed himself with singular skill of names belonging to three languages, Spanish, Moorish and Gothic, to vary his rhythmic effects. English itself is a language derived from divers roots, and therefore, if competently dealt with, the more capable of composite and contrasted melodies. But auxiliaries from even one alien tongue may do excellent service ; as Milton well knew when he sounded his roll-call of devils in the first book of Paradise Lost. The concluding lir the passage which follows will exemplify the advantage taken by Southey of Spanish names in Roderick :
•So saying Adosinda left the King
Roderick, IV. The picturesque element enters largely into Roderick; and in poems of such length, descriptions of natural scenery are invaluable as resting-places. Rest from action and passion,-rest even from intellectual effort,-cannot be dispensed with after prolonged strains in one or another mood of emotion or exaltation ; nor is it to be obtained in any better way than by occupying the mind's eye with natural beauty and the mind's ear with the gentle melodies by which it is most aptly accompanied. This exercise of art is nowhere more conspicuous than in Roderick.
Of minor poems Southey wrote many more than he had any desire to write. And how he came to write them is easily explained. In his first youth he says he often walked the streets for want of a dinner, not having eighteen pence for the ordinary nor bread and cheese at his lodgings 1. After twenty-one years of age he had a family to provide for, as well as certain relatives whom he could not allow to suffer from penury, though some of them may have deserved so to suffer. In 1835, when he was sixty-one years of age, he writes to Sir R. Peel (in a letter declining the offer of a baronetcy ), ‘ Last year for the first time in my life I was provided with a year's expenditure beforehand.' Under such circumstances, much as it may have been his desire to write only from impulse and aspiration, it was his duty to write for money too. In his earlier years minor poems were marketable ; a large proportion of his ballads and metrical tales were written for the Morning Post at a guinea a week; and when they were republished in a book, it was still for money, and with the motto, 'Nos haet novimus esse nihil.' There was no humiliation in this, and he knew that there was none.
When he found his means again failing in 1807, he writes that, if necessary, he will seek more review employment, write in more magazines, and scribble verses for the newspapers ; adding, 'as long as I can keep half my time for labours worthy of myself and of posterity I shall not feel debased by sacrificing the other, however unworthily it employed. And the fact is that, laborious and exuberant as he was from first to last, the great works which he was always longing and preparing, and in his sanguine heart hoping, to accomplish, – the history of Portugal, the history of English Literature, and the history of the Monastic Orders,—were postponed again and again and for ever.
As time passed on, his poetry, whether written for the market or not, became less saleable ; and in 1820 he writes to Landor,My poems hang on hand. I want no monitor to tell me it is time to leave off. I shall force myself to finish what I have begun, and then — good night. Had circumstances favoured I might have done more in this way, and better. But I have done enough to be remembered among poets, though my proper place will be
· Letter to G, Bedford,
: Lise and Letters, vol. vi. p. 256.