Studies of a Biographer/Southey's Letters
I read somewhere the other day a contemptuous reference to Southey's letters. It gave me a shock, and yet, upon reflection, I had to admit that from a purely literary point of view it had some justification. In spite of this, I can always turn with pleasure to the ten volumes of correspondence. I might justify myself by the often quoted passage in which Thackeray contrasts Southey as the true gentleman with the spurious article called George IV. 'Southey's politics,' said Thackeray, 'are obsolete, and his poetry dead; but his private letters are worth piles of epics, and are sure to last among us as long as kind hearts like to sympathise with goodness and purity and love and upright life.' Professor Dowden's charming account of Southey (in the 'Men of Letters' Series) is a prolonged commentary upon the same theme. I should be glad if I could set down my own liking for the letters to sheer sympathy with goodness and purity. I am aware, indeed, that it is the fashion to drop all moral prejudices before putting on one's critical robes; but I have a sneaking regard for the qualities mentioned by Thackeray when they are not smothered under too heavy a burthen of intellectual feebleness. Southey's virtues are not obscured by that defect. His letters are the self-portraiture of a man whose good qualities are seconded by superabundant vivacity. I am afraid, however, that this does not quite sum up the impression which they make. Southey was not exactly the typical saint—the man whose talents serve only to give lustre to the beauty of holiness. The eulogy which I have quoted would be equally applicable to Lamb's favourite Quaker, John Woolman, a touching incarnation of simplicity and goodwill to man. Now, Southey was no Quaker, but a man of war from his youth up—a hard hitter and a good hater; and such qualities, though they may be excellent, are not simple applications of the Sermon on the Mount. Thackeray would, of course, have given some touches of this kind if he had been drawing a full-length portrait, and not simply seeking for an antithesis to his pet aversion. Professor Dowden, I think, went a little too far in toning down the qualities which do not exactly fit the ideal candidate for canonisation. I am content for my part to say that Southey reached such moral excellence as is possible for his position. He is good enough (if I may speak as a member of the craft) to serve as the patron saint of men of letters by profession, though we must humbly confess that he would be a little out of place in a more exalted sanctuary. A man who lives by his pen must renounce some pretensions to lofty morality; he cannot expect to be on a pedestal beside the great philanthropists and prophets and statesmen. He confesses himself to belong to a lower class of humanity; but he may be a good specimen of his class, as a cab-horse may be a good cab-horse though he does not expect to win the Derby. If he pays his bills and is kind to his family, and does not sell his pen to the enemy, he deserves respect in his life, and may at least claim the usual complimentary epitaph. Southey is interesting to me because he represents the high-water mark in that direction during his own generation. He is the most complete type of the man fitted by nature for this peculiar function, which one must sorrowfully admit not to be the highest.
The problem which presents itself to the professional man of letters might be illustrated by that most pathetic autobiography of Mrs. Oliphant which has, I think, been rather harshly judged. Mrs. Oliphant thought (and, as I believe, with some justice) that, if freed from pecuniary pressure, she could have rivalled some more successful authors, and possibly have written a novel fit to stand on the same shelf with Adam Bede. She resigned her chance of such fame because she wished to send her sons to Eton. It is, of course, clear enough that, if she had sent them to some humbler school, she might have come nearer to combining the two aims, and have kept her family without sacrificing her talents to over-production. But, granting the force of the dilemma, I confess that I honour rather than blame the choice. I take it to be better for a parent to do his (or her) parental duty than to sacrifice the duty to art or the demands of posterity. Perhaps that is because I have a low opinion of the intrinsic value of artistic masterpieces. But I refer to Mrs. Oliphant merely to emphasise Southey's peculiarity. To him there scarcely appeared to be any dilemma at all. He says in an early letter that he has sacrificed prospects of wealth and rank to 'one overwhelming propensity'; but that propensity, he adds, 'has made me happy and will make me immortal.' He gave up his chances of a seat on the woolsack for the certainty of a place beside Milton or Spenser. He never doubted the possibility of combining the professional author with the inspired prophet. Undoubtedly the feat has been performed. Masterpieces have been written by Shakespeare and others, who turned them out in the way of business. But, in such cases, though the business motive unlocks the fountain, the spring is already full. The mind, that is, is charged with imagery and reflection: with thoughts, as Browning puts it, 'self-gathered for an outbreak' and 'chafing in the censer.' Southey seems to have imagined that preliminary accumulation was scarcely needed. He did not need any apprenticeship before setting up as a fully equipped teacher of mankind. 'It is the very nose on the face of my intellect,' he says quaintly, 'that my mind is useless without its tools.' He can never think regularly 'unless the pen be in his hand.' Then his thoughts flow as fast as the water from 'the rock of Horeb.' But without the 'wand'—the pen, that is, to strike the rock—the rock remains dry. If thinking and uttering are identical, meditation and reflection are superfluous. That partly explains Southey's amazing habits of business-like composition. He divides his time with the absolute punctuality of a city clerk between his various employments: writing Kehama before breakfast to earn 'immortality,' and dividing the rest of the day between reviews, histories, and the exposition of sound moral and political philosophy. His friend, Landor, to whom, by his own account, poetical composition meant nights broken by tears and days of absorption, wondered at Southey's facility, and, we must suppose, contrived to avoid the reflection that the wonder would be diminished when the value of the results was taken into account. People like Dante and Milton supposed that a whole life must be devoted to a great poem; Wordsworth felt at least that it would require an abundant allowance of 'wise passiveness.' Southey had the pleasant illusion that the only relaxation needed was a change of labour, and that the fertility of the mind could be preserved, not by lying fallow, but by a rotation of crops, poetical, political, historical, to say nothing of the multitudinous varieties of hackwork which filled up the interstices. It is odd, though characteristic, that so devoted a student of literature should never have asked himself, or fully considered, the question, What really goes to the making of a masterpiece?
I find, indeed, that critics of authority speak or Southey's poems with respect, and weigh in their judicial balances the relative merits of Joan of Arc, and Thalaba, and Madoc, and Roderick, and the rest, though they do not seem to agree as to which is the best. I venture no opinion. I once had a friend—and a very intelligent friend—who had Madoc at his fingers' ends. Scott read it four times with 'increasing admiration.' Fox read it aloud at night, and with the surprising result of keeping his hearers awake for an hour beyond the usual time. Perhaps their sleep was afterwards the sounder. Dean Stanley was an ardent admirer—and who am I, to say that I cannot bring my mind even to remember the family relationships of Madoc and Goervyl and Cadwallon, or to take the smallest interest in the conversations of Tezozomoc and Yuhidthiton, or to understand why Erillyab cursed the hour in which she gave birth to Amalahta? The most remarkable eulogy upon Southey that I know is by Cardinal Newman. To show how literary language can be improved he contrasts one of Milton's craggy choruses in Samson Agonistes with Southey's opening verses in Thalaba—'How beautiful is night'—and decides that Southey shows to advantage. Southey's verses are, of course, smoother: whether they show a greater mastery of versification is a question in which I fear to contradict so exquisite a judge. Yet Newman would surely have agreed that if Southey's versification in general could be compared to Milton's as fair specimens of the two periods, the obvious moral would be, not the improvement but the possible degradation of poetic dialect. A secret would seem to have been lost, and mere facility of handling to have taken the place of the marvellous instinct which created Milton's majestic harmonies. Perhaps, indeed, Newman only intended to say what may be more easily accepted. Southey, no doubt, writes like a thoroughly practised craftsman; he has all the technical skill that implies a trained sensibility without high genius, and avoids the occasional blunders, if he cannot approach the felicities, of Milton's splendid audacity.
Apart from such technical matters, Southey's poetry has attracted many readers on the moral side. Carlyle says that he recognised the 'piety, the gentle deep affection, the reverence for God and man which reigned in these pieces' (Thalaba, Joan of Arc, and so forth), 'full of soft pity, like the wailings of a mother, and yet with a clang of chivalrous valour finely audible, too.' So Professor Dowden tells us that Southey's heroes embody his native stoicism; he had been an enthusiastic reader of Epictetus in early youth, and his great characters are models of fortitude and self-devotion under overpowering difficulties. I do not doubt that this ought to be felt; only it must be confessed that it has to struggle with certain difficulties. Boys (I can answer for one case) used to read Thalaba and The Curse of Kehama, as they read the Arabian Nights, which does not embody stoical morality. The pleasure came from the curious stories of eccentric mythology which Southey had extracted from his multifarious reading. The first motive of these poems was not the setting forth of moral ideals, but the illustration of ancient mythologies. After the days of childish simplicity all this 'machinery' is apt to reveal its comic side. Kehama, as it may now be necessary to mention, is a wonderful Hindoo prince, who has become an 'almighty man' by performing certain rites of mysterious efficacy. He uses his power to curse his enemy, Ladurlad, and, with the singular shortsightedness common in fairy stories, tries to prolong his victim's sufferings by endowing him with immortality and invulnerability. The result is that Ladurlad is always turning up in the most impossible times and places, and, being invulnerable, can frustrate all Kehama's tyrannical schemes by such singular feats as choking a supernatural sea-monster after a week of wrestling. It becomes quite impossible, as his eulogist admits, to 'drop a tear' over Ladurlad and his amiable daughter. They may be very virtuous, but their position is too grotesque; and when the terrible Kehama appears at the eight gates of Hell all at once, and tackles the excellent god of that district, one foresees too well the coming transformation scene. The lofty stoicism only adds a touch of the comic to this topsy-turvy world of the totally irrational. Fairyland is a very pleasant region in its way, and so is the philosophical world of ethical ideals, but somehow they do not blend very easily. There are certain poems of Southey's which we can all read with pleasure. The Old Woman of Berkeley for example, and others in which he appears as poet-laureate to the Devil—the genuine 'Old Nick,' with horns and hoofs, who found his master in St. Antidius and sat for his portrait to the Spanish painter, and enlivened medieval chronicles with the quaint legends which Southey delighted to unearth. The ballads are better, I think, than the Ingoldsby Legends, because they are less vulgar and less elaborately funny. Southey tells us how he first read the legend of the 'old woman of Berkeley' in a chronicle chained to the upper shelf of the neglected library in a Spanish convent, having to stand on a chair to reach his treasure, and how he set about his verses 'that very evening.' We have the genuine man of letters looking up in playful mood, delighted by the nugget of quaint absurdity which has enlivened his labours, and pouring out his ballad with spontaneous and infectious delight.
This, however, suggests to ordinary criticism that in the 'epics' the literary gentleman does not get sufficiently out of sight. After the excellent Joan of Arc has astonished the priests of her day by versifying a bit of Rousseau, we have to listen to a series of extracts from chronicles, and to consult authorities as to the medieval methods of warfare, which tend to damp one's ardour, and I humbly confess that my efforts to read later poems have generally been frustrated by the temptation of plunging into the notes in which the epic poet gives his authorities. Southey's reading had made him familiar with much that is now called 'Folk-lore,' and I turn from an affecting incident in the Tale of Paraguay to follow his remarks upon the curious custom of the 'couvade,' or from a tremendous fight of Madoc with a sacred serpent, to read an account of 'the wonderful docility of the snake.' The reader of an epic poem is clearly not in the right mood when he is accessible to such temptations; and he infers, rightly perhaps, that the writer must have been equally below the imaginative tension necessary for success. In fact, an 'epic poem' was already an anachronism; though Southey tells us that all clever young men in his day hoped to produce epic poems. I do not know what they want to produce now—something, perhaps, which will seem as absurd a century hence. Anyhow, we are content to pass Southey's poems with the admission that they are not so unreadable as Glover's Leonidas, or Wilkie's Epigoniad. The characteristic point is Southey's complacent and indomitable faith in his own performances. There is something sublime in his self-confidence. He commends the judicious critic who had said that Madoc was the best English poem since Paradise Lost. 'This is not exaggerated praise, for unfortunately there is no competition.' Madoc must, indeed, be compared with the Odyssey, not with the Iliad but it is a good poem, and must live. He objects to being called the 'sublimest poet of the age,' for on that point Wordsworth and Landor are 'at least his equals.' But this statement is not to be suspected of 'mock-modesty,' as he sufficiently proves by adding that he 'will have done greater things than either,' though not because he possesses 'greater powers.' In fact, there are different classes of excellence. His mind, he admits, is wholly unlike Milton's, whose proper analogue is Wordsworth. For himself, he may be fairly compared with Tasso, Virgil, or Homer. Every generation, he observes elsewhere, will afford some half-dozen admirers of Kehama, 'and the everlasting column of Dante's fame does not stand upon a wider base.' Meanwhile, he points out that contemporary popularity can only be won by compliance with the faults of the time—a consoling doctrine which he shared with Wordsworth and Landor. Unfortunately, there are other roads to unpopularity besides simple excellence. Southey, however, was able to preserve the pleasant belief that he was one of the few fixed stars of his time, though differing from other stars in glory, and that his light would be recognised through the ages to come.
This failing, if it be rightly called a failing, is clearly an essential characteristic. If a man is to be condemned because he has a calm conviction of his own undeniable merits, no case can be made out for Southey. His self-confidence is written in the very character of his face. He fancies that his friend Bedford may attribute one of his humours to the 'cut of his nose,' Certainly, it is impossible to look at Southey's portrait without admitting that a man with such a nose was predestined to a dogmatic self-complacency. He was strikingly handsome, and Byron, we know, said that he would almost have written Southey's Sapphics to have such a head upon his shoulders; and, though it is easy to guess what reply Byron was really courting, the remark certainly implies that his rival had strikingly good looks. Hazlitt speaks of his 'falcon glance,' and Carlyle of his sharp, eager, 'militant' expression. Another describer speaks of his brilliant eyes, under black brows and snow-white hair, but adds the inevitable 'beak.' The elder Shandy would have taken him for an illustration of his famous study upon noses. A man with the beak of a falcon has to go through the world defiant, conscious that he is of a higher than the ordinary strain; ready to pounce upon the barn-door fowl, and sometimes, perhaps, mistaking an eagle for a mere overgrown carrion crow. Marmion had a falcon for his crest, with the motto, 'Who checks at me to death is dight!' Southey's might have borne the same motto. When he meets an opponent he foresees the result—the wretch is crushed, and will be remembered by posterity solely as a victim to Southey's righteous indignation. We call the quality vanity when we dislike it, and fail to observe how essential a service it renders to its possessor. Would any great thinker or great poet succeed without it? Does it not show portentous self-confidence when a Bacon or a Descartes proposes to reconstruct philosophy, or when a Dante or a Milton undertakes to give utterance to the profoundest religious thought of his age? We judge by the event; and if the man's opinion of himself turns out to be tolerably correct, we speak of his noble consciousness of genius and his fidelity to his powers. If the poor man has made a mistake, we make merry over his conceit. Wordsworth's estimate of his own merits was confirmed in the main by the next generation, and Southey's became the object of ridicule. Was not the same moral quality implied in both cases? and why should Southey be blamed for taking his ardent love of literature for a proof of supreme literary genius? Ten people must try if one is to succeed. Great, at any rate, must be the comfort of such a possession. Vanity, like sleep, 'wraps a man round like a cloak'; it is the natural armour which fits the man of letters for the struggle of existence. Some authors may be simply 'pachydermatous,' though that is a quality which scarcely fits the true literary temperament. Southey, highly strung, sensitive, and ardent, was gifted with that falcon nose and that superlative self-esteem to comfort and support him through failure and obloquy, and the protracted struggle to make both ends meet. Nothing less could have kept up his spirits through his hard-fought career. 'My natural spirits,' he says in 1819, 'are buoyant beyond those of any person, man, woman, or child, whom I ever saw or heard of.' This 'vanity,' self-esteem, or whatever we please to call it, is simply one aspect of the indomitable buoyancy which enabled him to do some really admirable work, if it led him into rash attempts to soar beyond his powers.
Undoubtedly such a conviction shows a weakness. A man could hardly take himself so seriously who had any very strong sense of humour. But a sense of humour is hard to reconcile with some cardinal virtues. The true humorist sees that the world is a tragi-comedy, a Vanity Fair, in which enthusiasm is out of place. Southey, with a sense of humour, would have been alive to his own smallness in the general system of things; he would have perceived that even a Quarterly Reviewer cannot make the great current flow backwards, and that a drudging journalist had no right to drape himself in the robes of a prophet. Hopes of 'literary immortality,' and a place among the dead with Virgil and Homer and Dante, are apt to strike the humorist as illusions—mere gaseous exhalations of vanity to be dispersed by an injection of chilling mockery. It was happy for Southey that he had hardly more humour than Milton or Wordsworth or Shelley or Miss Brontë. In spite of his defect, or his immunity, shall we say, from this morbid propensity, Southey was certainly no prig. He could enjoy nonsense and was proud of it, though his nonsense, it must be confessed, is poor enough in quality. It is amusing to read his correspondence with Grosvenor Bedford upon his Doctor. Bedford feared that Southey's jokes might fall a little flat in print. The success of Tristram Shandy would not, he said, justify a second assumption of the cap and bells. Southey replies by a rapturous account of his precious manuscript: the stores of reading which it is to display—the 'satire and speculation,' the mixture of truths which require the cap and bells with others which might beseem the bench and the pulpit, and withal a narrative, continuous, and yet varying from grave to gay, 'taking as wild and natural a course as one of our mountain streams.' He is so delighted with his performance that he confides his hopes to his readers and tells them that the whole world is to be racked by curiosity as to the authorship. He makes cunning little plots to throw readers upon a false scent; he imagines the 'stir and buzz and bustle' at tea-tables and booksellers' shops, and in Holland House. It cannot be Byron's or Moore's, it will be said, because it is too moral; or Wordsworth's, because an elephant does not cut capers on the slack wire; or Coleridge's, because it is intelligible throughout; or Hazlitt's, because it is free from egotism and abuse of Southey and Coleridge. Nobody is capable of such a unique combination unless Southey be suggested; and he is 'buried under his own historical quartos.' The worthy author that is, is chuckling to himself because he is able to interpose this marvellous production between his stupendous labours. The Doctor was not all that Southey fancied, and yet one is grateful for the illusions which cheered him. Certainly, he did not make a rival to Tristram Shandy. He had not the humour; nor could even Sterne have accomplished Tristram Shandy if he had worked under Southey's conditions. It is easy enough to be odd, but to make mere oddity the vehicle for true humour requires an artistic elaboration which cannot be produced without the leisurely thought which can wait for the felicitous combination. Southey, in attempting the 'Shandy' vein, achieves oddity and incoherence without genuine humour; he imitates, in Burke's phrase, the contortions without the inspiration of the Sibyl. But, in spite of that, the Doctor is a very delightful book; a book 'for the bedside,' which is always entertaining without endangering sleep. Like Burton's Anatomy, it is, of course, a commonplace book in disguise. But, besides its collection of 'curiosities of literature,' it has really charming interludes when Southey is not tempted into too deliberate facetiousness. A great author would not like, I imagine, to rest his fame upon a perfect nursery story, and yet, if 'literary immortality' be desirable, the immortal story of the Three Bears is more likely to secure that result than Madoc or Roderick. To add a new legend fit to take place amidst the old legendary stories is surely a remarkable feat. This is the gem of the Doctor; but it is one outcome of a playful and tender sentiment which, amidst some obvious defects, often shows the real charm of Southey's domestic atmosphere. The frontispiece—a view of Southey's back as he sits in his library—is characteristic. You can see the man in spite of the concealment almost as clearly as if he showed his falcon beak; the neat alert figure, not lolling, but sitting bolt upright before the beautiful rows of well-bound books which he managed to collect in spite of his poverty, and which he still affectionately fondled when the power of reading them had gone. The correlation of organism and environment (Southey would have shuddered at such neologisms!) is perfect. He is as much in his place as a Dryad in an oak; and it is not for those who have haunted the same regions to complain if he is a trifle too 'bookish.' Southey, I must confess, went a bit too far when he took his walks with a book in his hands. I abhor such a practice. It is as bad as smoking a pipe in church; it savours of profanity to the real lovers of walks, and suggests that Southey really liked even mountains better on paper than in reality. One must, however, forgive something to a thoroughbred monomaniac; and if Southey's talk, as De Quincey reports, ran too much upon literature and too little upon life, it meant no indifference or blindness to actual events, only an acquired necessity of looking at them through his accustomed spectacles. To read the Doctor is to spend an hour with Southey in his library; and, if here and there to be a little overdosed with an author's pedantry, yet to be made aware of his domestic charm. There was a nursery in his house as well as a library; and the Three Bears must have been told to the precocious boy whose early death almost broke his father's heart. Daniel Dove, his hero, is not an Uncle Toby, but he sufficiently reflects the generous and chivalrous characteristics of his creator.
The Doctor, indeed, shows the limitations of Southey's intellect, which have led critics to condemn him as a mere fossil in politics and his enemies to denounce him as a renegade and a timeserver. Few men were more bitterly abused than the 'ultra-servile, sack-guzzling laureate' (to quote one flower of speech). Southey, of course, took this as a compliment. 'There is no man,' he says in 1816, 'whom the Whigs and Anarchists hate more inveterately, because there is none whom they fear so much.' That is the secret. They tremble at his logic and his eloquence and writhe under his satire. When Mr. William Smith—a very excellent Unitarian and a conspicuous supporter of Wilberforce and Clarkson—called Southey a renegade, Southey retorted 'by branding him on the forehead with the name of slanderer.' 'Salve the mark as you will, sir, it is ineffaceable! You must bear it with you to your grave, and the remembrance will outlast your epitaph.' The pamphlet in which this occurs was considered by Southey and his friends as a triumphant and dignified vindication of his fame; and ends by a 'scathing' passage in which Southey sees by anticipation his own life in a biographical dictionary, and 'a certain Mr. William Smith' just dragged in at the tail of the article as the retailer of a preposterous calumny. Both of them have, in fact, obtained admission to such a work; but the allusion to their conflict does not quite confirm Southey's prophetic view. The characteristic thing is the way in which Southey unconsciously evades the point. The occasion of the controversy was the republication, by an enemy, of Wat Tyler, a performance of the early days in which he had sympathised with the French Revolution. Southey maintains—what no one will now dispute—that a man of over forty may have honestly changed opinions held at twenty. What he fails to see is that a convert should be charitably disposed to the unconverted. A Protestant may become a Catholic without reproach, but he is hardly the proper person to propose that all Protestants should be sent to the stake. That gave the real edge to Smith's indignation. Radicals were reviving the doctrines of Wat Tyler; they were met by the suspension of the 'Habeas Corpus,' the 'Six Acts,' and all the old machinery of suppression. The loudest advocate for applying the scourge was precisely the author of Wat Tyler. His letters are full of the wrath roused by Cobbett and 'orator Hunt' and the Radical Press. 'I would have the Anarchists under weigh for Botany Bay or in prison within a month after the meeting of Parliament,' he says; and in the Quarterly Review he did his utmost to stimulate the fears of the Tory rulers. He urged the amiable Wilberforce to take the side of severity. In his own opinion he is quite consistent, because the persons who now advocate his old principles are diabolical miscreants, seeking to ruin society and initiating the most dangerous conspiracies. When he was a revolutionist, revolutionists were all good men. Things have altered now. The alteration was not so obvious to Mr. William Smith. He and his friends failed to see that they were scoundrels who ought not to be allowed even to open their mouths. On such matters, however, Southey knew himself to be infallible. He was just as certain that he could blast the fame of Byron as that he could indelibly brand the forehead of Mr. William Smith. Byron and his crew were the 'Satanic School'—as he took occasion to point out incidentally, by way of preface to his Vision of Judgment. Few people, probably, read Southey's 'Vision,' unless in illustration of Byron's most cutting satire; but it is worth a glance in illustration of Southey's own character. Byron, in certain collateral attacks on Southey, no doubt showed his own meaner side; but it is curious to note that his 'Vision' has an amazing superiority not only in wit—which goes without saying—but in reverence. Southey gives one of the quaintest of all illustrations of the occasional transition of intense respectability into something very like blasphemy. A devout Christian might be expected to reflect that on the Day of Judgment the political squabbles of the day would lose some of their importance. Southey might even have taken a hint from Swift's famous vision. 'Jove's' startling declaration, 'I damn such fools!' is not, I suppose, exactly orthodox, and it is certainly misanthropical. But at least it implies that the Deity should not be made a Tory partisan, and that Byron's view that on that day George III. would appear as a stupid, obstinate, well-meaning human being is less shocking than Southey's calm assumption that the old king is still to wear his crown in heaven, and Wilkes and 'Junius' be sent straight to hell. A loyal dedication to George IV., as the providentially appointed inheritor of the merits of his race, adds a specially grotesque touch when we remember that just at this moment that monarch's domestic life was becoming public property. Such blunders are common enough. It is a very good thing to be always on the side of virtue; but it may sometimes lead to the error that you think you have a kind of patent for uttering moral sentiment.
Southey had not the philosopher's elevation nor the poet's insight to see things in their true proportions. To judge him by such standards is simply inappropriate. When Hazlitt reproached him as a turncoat, he had a very fair retort. Hazlitt and he had both taken the French Revolution to be the dawn of liberty. Hazlitt was now worshipping Napoleon, the military despot and the oppressor of Spain and Germany, and still bragging of his 'consistency.' As Southey put it, 'You are still looking for the sun in the east when he has got round to the west. It is I who am still faithful to my aspirations, but have been wise enough to learn by experience that I was mistaken in my facts.' To ask which was right would be not only superfluous but irrelevant. Southey's revolutionary sentiment belonged to his schoolboy days. He was still at Westminster when the Bastille was taken, and at Oxford during the early part of the war. He had found out that 'pantisocracy' was an illusion by the time he was of age, and was already reconciled enough to be looking forward to an ordinary professional career. Nobody could blame a man seriously for altering the doctrines which had attracted him at college. But Southey did not really change his opinions; he only changed what he had erroneously supposed to be his . The change of his early teacher, Coleridge, involved an intellectual elaboration: the abandonment of the philosophy which had satisfied his early youth, and the steeping of his mind in the mystical doctrines discovered in Germany. Wordsworth, when he rejected the revolutionary teachers, went through a prolonged spiritual crisis, and had to struggle long and grievously before he could get his feet upon a satisfactory rock. When Southey changed, it did not even occur to him that he was changing at all. He did not alter his philosophical creed, because he had no philosophical creed to alter. He got on very well, as most of us do, without one. He does not know much about metaphysics, as he admits, at twenty-one, but he has quite enough to confute Godwin. He takes up the first handy argument that is lying about. It will do to rap his antagonist's knuckles, and he does not inquire to what else it may commit him. His son tells us how he started as a Stoic, and then became a Unitarian, and finally a devoted Anglican, by imperceptible degrees. At each stage, moreover, he was equally confident that he had possession of the whole truth, and that his complete satisfaction with the creed of the moment should be a conclusive proof of its validity to everybody else. He was content with any general principle which would serve for a war-cry. He was not a man, as he says, for half-measures. He was too vehement by nature not to like good round sweeping assertions, but he looked at the concrete embodiment of principles, not at the abstract justification. In his generous and impetuous youth he worshipped Rousseau, and was carried off his feet by the brilliant Coleridge. He did not ask how the cosmopolitan philanthropy was to be combined with the patriotic zeal which was equally ingrained in the youthful Briton. They simply lay side by side in his mind. When the Revolution led to the Terror in France, and to suppression of free speech in England, he inferred that Robespierre on one side and Pitt on the other were very bad men, and did not bother about more general causes. He indulged for the time in a little misanthropy in the humour of Swift; professed to hate mankind in a mass, though he loved individuals; and, in short, held that everybody, except Southey, had gone mad. The 'misanthropy' was shallow enough, and did not for a moment diminish his buoyancy, his interest in life and in books, or his delight in his friends and family. It only meant that, for the time, there was no party to which he could swear unreserved allegiance, and for one who is by nature a partisan that is an intolerable position. His dislike of 'that wretched Pitt,' that 'coxcombly, insolent, empty-headed, long-winded braggadocio' (phrases used on occasion of Pitt's death, but representing his permanent view), gradually developed into hatred, not of the tyrant but of the incompetent War Minister. The patriotism becomes more permanent than the republicanism. When the Peninsular War began he had at last a cause to swear by. Jeffrey had criticised Thalaba, and tried to crush Wordsworth ('as well try to crush Skiddaw,' said Southey), and now Jeffrey and his clique were preaching that England must be beaten by Napoleon. This cowardice (so they thought it) roused Southey as it roused Scott. The Quarterly Review, afterwards Southey' s mainstay, was started to give expression to the new sentiment. Even Wordsworth was roused to write a political pamphlet. The war was no longer a crusade against Jacobinism, but a war in defence of oppressed nations. To Southey the appeal came with especial force, because he had lived in Portugal and was thoroughly versed in Spanish and Portuguese literature. He looked forward, as he declared, not merely to a resurrection of the Spanish people, but to the creation of a federal republic. His old and his new principles pointed in the same direction. He dropped his 'misanthropy' now that he had at last a plain cause to be supported by tooth and nail. His indomitable buoyancy made him superlatively confident, and having backed the winning side, he was ever afterwards convinced that he was an infallible prophet. He could criticise Moore or Wellington by the light of nature; and, if things went wrong for a time, it was always from neglect of the advice which he would have given. The most valuable result for us of Southey's enthusiasm was the famous Life of Nelson. Nothing could be more characteristic. Southey's ignorance of nautical matters was absolute. He was, as he says, a 'thorough landlubber,' who just knew the binnacle from the mainmast, and had to walk among sea-terms as 'a cat does in a china-pantry.' He, of course, had not read Captain Mahan. The motives of Nelson's strategy are left in judicious obscurity, and we have to take it on faith that he was right on any given occasion in hauling his wind or brailing up his mainsail. Apocryphal stories are accepted without an attempt at criticism. But the book, in spite of an excessive 'jingoism' and very unworthy abuse of the French, is a classic, because no biographer was ever more in sympathy with his hero, or wrote more simply and directly. Nelson's three great commandments—obey orders, honour the King, and hate the French as you hate the devil—apply to warfare the principles which Southey applied to literature. Absolute simple-minded devotion to the immediate purpose in hand is characteristic of both. Nelson in sight of a French fleet and Southey opposed to a Radical orator strike home with the same inexorable and uncompromising zeal. Even Nelson's vanity and thirst for 'glory' recall Southey's literary aspirations, and, if Southey could not be a real naval critic, he could give to perfection the essential charm of the historic character.
Southey's patriotic enthusiasm imperceptibly carried him into the Tory camp. The author of Wat Tyler would have been shocked by the Quarterly Reviewer. Yet the change should surely be intelligible now that we can adopt the historical point of view. To abuse Southey as a renegade was quite natural so long as the old party lines were taken to mark the distinction between right and wrong. But that theory seems to be a little obsolete. I have lived long enough to see a change on a larger scale which may help to account for Southey's supposed tergiversation. We are told by Liberals that they adhere unflinchingly to the immortal principles of their creed. Still, one who was a Liberal fifty years ago must admit that those principles have come to support theories, especially about Government interference, which they were once used to demolish. Southey's conversion was simply a crude anticipation of the same change. It is curious to read Macaulay's review of Southey's Colloquies. Macaulay, as usual, talks a great deal of very sound common-sense, and makes mincemeat of some of Southey's amazing expositions of political economy. Macaulay is a prophet in the school of Adam Smith. He rejoices in a Pisgah-sight of the blessed period when cultivation will be carried to the top of Helvellyn, and there will be no travelling but by steam. The one secret for reaching the land of promise is that rulers should leave men to manage their own affairs, and abandon the folly of 'paternal government.' Southey, indeed, talked a great deal of downright nonsense. He admits his ignorance of political economy, which he regards as a conclusive proof that political economy was not worth knowing. He falls into fallacies too absurd for argument. The distress which followed the peace was simply due to the loss of a customer (that is, the Government) to the amount of fifty millions a year; and the remedy was not retrenchment but maintenance of the war expenditure, even (as he suggests) by building enormous 'pyramids' to Nelson and Wellington. He talked, says Macaulay, as if the taxes dropped out of heaven like the 'quails and manna sent to the Israelites.' That such fallacies could be seriously propounded is some excuse for the arrogance of the contemporary economists. They represent simply the illogical way in which Southey clutched at extravagant theories as the readiest mode of contradicting their opposites. If, however, the Colloquies abound in such absurdities, a reader of to-day will be still more struck by the anticipation of modern tendencies. Southey can hardly mention Malthus without foaming at the mouth. That was because 'Malthus' meant for him the doctrine that vice and disease were necessary checks to population; and that the only way to suppress poverty was to leave the poor man to starve. He denounced the 'manufacturing system' even in his early writings, as the great source of evil, because it meant the breaking up of the old social bonds, the growth of a vast 'proletariat,' and the conditions under which the rich become richer and the poor poorer, or, as he puts it, the capitalists, like pike in a fish-pond, eat up the smaller fish. He attacks Pitt (absurdly enough) as responsible for the cruelties inflicted upon children in factories, and Lord Shaftesbury, when he took up the factory legislation, wrote to Southey, as a disciple to one of his chief teachers. Macaulay supposes that Southey thinks well of Owen, simply because Owen was 'more unreasonably and hopelessly in the wrong than any speculator of our time.' Southey's sympathy meant really (as many of his letters show) that he held that Owen, in spite of some shocking opinions and chimerical hopes, was at least attacking the great social evil—the spreading cancer of pauperism. Now that we have 'all become Socialists,' we can at least admit that Southey saw something which was hidden from Macaulay. Southey, of course, rushed to extremes. He is as vehement and one-sided as Carlyle, whose French Revolution he admired and whose Chartism would have been quite to his taste. He held (as many observers held then) that the country was oscillating between a servile war and a military despotism. His remedy was that Government should do its duty and suppress discontent by improving the condition of the poor. He rivalled the most bigoted Tories of the day in supporting despotic measures; but he also protested most vehemently against the neglect of corresponding duties. He demanded a national system of education as vigorously as he supported the attacks upon the Press. His theories had another side which struck Macaulay as specially absurd. He held with Burke that 'religion is the basis of civil society.' Southey, in his vehement way, takes for granted as a self-evident 'postulate' that religion means the Anglican religion, and comes painfully near to approving that no others should be tolerated. He admits, indeed, that the Church requires reforms. The Life of Wesley, in other ways a very charming and characteristic book, is really designed in support of one of his favourite schemes—the enlistment of the Methodists as 'Cossacks' or irregular troops auxiliary to the Church. His desire to found Protestant sisterhoods to take up some of the old functions of monastic institutions represents an earlier phase of the movement which has since transformed the Church of England. Southey's belief that the Golden Age was somehow due to the Reformation, and that the Reformation was also the cause of pauperism and half the social evils of the day, is an odd instance of the way in which he was governed by the prejudices of his position. He hated Popery as heartily as he hated Malthus, and yet a generation later he would probably have followed Cardinal Manning, who had some similar qualities of character. The odd collection of vehement and uncompromising prejudices which Southey took for principles meant a hasty assimilation of doctrines which, for good or evil, were to gain strength in the next generation. When we can look at him simply as a historical phenomenon, we can see how he represents a rising force even more than a mere obstruction. To Whigs of the Macaulay stamp he seemed to be simply a 'reactionary' partisan and a servile follower of Sidmouth or Eldon. It is easy now to see that they would have done better to take a hint from the enemy. He recognised social evils, and proposed quack remedies. They met him by denying that any remedy was wanted. That may sufficiently explain why even in Southey's rash dogmatism there is something less antiquated than in Macaulay's optimistic confidence in the policy of doing nothing.
Some of his old prejudice hangs about Southey still, and obscures some merits of the letters. We are repelled by some of his outrageous utterances instead of simply taking them as indications of character. Instead of being amused, we are tempted to the absurdity of contradicting or even arguing. Then his directness and simplicity produce one bad result. Southey constantly insisted upon the doctrine, consoling for some authors, that the secret of good writing is to be concise, clear, and pointed, and not to think about your style at all. 'Style' must come unconsciously. You must aim at the mark without thinking about your attitude. The method is excellent when you are writing a plain statement of fact or argument, and is so far applicable in letter-writing that self-consciousness or deliberate attempts at literary elegance is the worst of all faults. Yet really first-rate letters should imply a certain detachment. The writer should be able to play a little with his subject: to tell a bit of news so as to give the picturesque aspects; to insinuate a humorous or melancholy reflection without falling into sermonising; and, in short, to put into a few lines the effect of a whole evening of spontaneous and discursive chat. Southey, having to squeeze in a letter between an epic and a quarterly review, is too eager and impetuous. He goes to the point at once like a good man of business, and cannot give the effect of leisurely and amused reflection. The reader has to supply a good deal from independent knowledge, or to gather it from the general result of the correspondence. Then we gradually become aware of those admirable moral qualities of which Thackeray speaks. He takes up one burthen after another as all in the day's work so simply that we may fail to notice the energy implied in his forty years of unremitting labour. It is quite natural, when one comes to think of it, that his brain should have given way at last: but at any given moment he seems to be working as smoothly and unconsciously as a well-oiled steam-engine. There are no creaks and groans and whinings, and one can forget that there was any strain. So he makes few protestations; but the old friendships go on from schoolboy days to the end without a cloud. Though irritable and sensitive, he seems never to have had one of those personal quarrels which, it is to be feared, give a zest to many literary biographies, and his self-restraint leads us to ignore the temptations overcome. The friendship with Coleridge alone seems to have cooled very decidedly; but it must be admitted that it was hard for the most methodical of authors to preserve his affection for the amiable poet and philosopher, who could be systematic in nothing but in neglecting his duties and leaving them to be discharged by his brother-in-law. We smile at Southey's vanity, and forget to notice his freedom from self-conscious egotism which provokes jealousy of rivals. Nobody could be more generous than Southey in appreciating eminent contemporaries, or giving a helping hand to young men of promise. He is, it is true, rather apt to discover 'satanic' propensities in his antagonists; but he was at least a perfectly straightforward and sincere enemy. Of all the charges made by his enemies, the most absurd was that of servility. He always says what he thinks, and though he had never a year's income in advance, never condescended to unworthy flattery of patrons or the public. If he estimates his work too highly, he takes it as a mere matter of course that he should be independent and plain-spoken. The letters after the death of the son who was to have inherited his genius, are almost the only ones in which Southey allows himself to utter the strong domestic affections in which we see, on reflection, that he found his real happiness. Even in the midst of this grief he is, perhaps, a little over-anxious to insist upon his power of preserving a stoical calm; but for once he cannot conceal the emotions which he generally keeps in the background. Poor Mrs. Southey, one suspects, had a rather bad time of it with the anxieties which he met so gallantly. She must have grudged the purchase of that Acta Sanctorum over which he rejoices without a thought of weekly bills. When, however, one tries to form a picture of Southey's life and to supply the side which he leaves in obscurity, one begins to hope that even a journalist may save his soul. That the letters do not give up that secret at the first glance is, perhaps, the reason why they are not more generally valued; but to those who have been immersed in the same element, it should not be difficult to supply the gaps. He gets rather hard measure. Some modern readers seem to like in an author precisely the qualities which they would despise in the man. Southey, as a gentleman to the core, was incapable of the wayward egotism and bitter personality which Hazlitt cherished and even turned to account in his works. Posterity is too apt to prefer the man who will unveil his feelings, even when they are in themselves ignoble; and Southey's 'stoicism,' honourable as it was, has perhaps alienated rather than attracted sympathy.