Political Essays (1819)/The Courier and Wat Tyler
THE COURIER AND "THE WAT TYLER."
Doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth, that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences, and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?—Much Ado about Nothing.
March 30, 1817.
Instead of applying for an injunction against Wat Tyler, Mr. Southey would do well to apply for an injunction against Mr. Coleridge, who has undertaken his defence in The Courier. If he can escape from the ominous patronage of that gentleman's pen, he has nothing to fear from his own. "The Wat Tyler" as Mr. Coleridge has personified it, can do the author no great harm: it only proves that he was once a wild enthusiast: of the two characters, for which Mr. Southey is a candidate with the public, this is the most creditable for him to appear in. At present his reputation "somewhat smacks." A strong dose of the Jacobin spirit of Wat Tyler may be of use to get the sickly taste of the Poet-laureate and the Quarterly Reviewer out of our mouths.
The best thing for Mr. Southey (if we might be allowed to advise) would be for his friends to say nothing about him, and for him to say nothing about other people. We have nothing to do with Mr. Southey "the man," or even with Mr. Southey the apostate; but we have something to do with Mr. Southey the spy and informer. Is it not a little strange, that while this gentleman is getting an injunction against himself as the author of Wat Tyler, he is recommending gagging bills against us, and the making up by force for his deficiency in argument! There is a want of keeping in this; but Mr. Southey and his friends delight in practical and speculative contradictions. What are we to think of a man who is "now a flagitious incendiary," (to use the epithets which Mr. Southey applies to the Editor of the Examiner) "a palliater of murder, insurrection, and treason," and anon a pensioned scribbler of court poetry and court politics? If the writer of the article on Parliamentary Reform thinks the Editor of this Paper "a flagitious incendiary," "a palliater of murder, insurrection, and treason," what does the Quarterly Reviewer think of the author of Wat Tyler? What, on the other hand, does the author of Wat Tyler think of the Quarterly Reviewer? What does Mr. Southey, who certainly makes a very aukward figure between the two, think of himself? Mr. Coleridge indeed steps in to the assistance of his friend in this dilemma, and says (unsaying all that he says besides) that the ultra-jacobinical opinions advanced in Wat Tyler were "more an honour to the writer's heart than an imputation on his understanding?" Be it so. The Editor of this Paper will, we dare say, agree to this statement from disinterested motives, (for he is not answerable for any ultra-jacobinical opinions) as we suppose Mr. Southey will accede to it from pure self-love. He hardly thinks that he was "a knave and fool" formerly, as he calls all those who formerly agreed or now differ with him: he only thinks with Mr. Coleridge and The Courier, that he was not quite so "wise and virtuous" then, as he is at present! Why then not extend the same charitable interpretation to those who have held a middle course between his opposite extravagances? We are sure, that to be thought a little less wise and virtuous than that celebrated person thinks himself, would content the ambition of any moderate man. Will he allow of nothing short of the utmost intolerance of jacobinism or anti-jacobinism? Or will he tolerate this intolerance in nobody but himself? This seems to be his feeling: and it also seems to be Mr. Coleridge's opinion, whose maudlin methodistical casuistry leads him to clothe Mr. Southey's political sins with apostacy as with a garment, and to plead one excess of folly and indecency as a competent set-off against another. To be a renegado, is, with him, to be virtuous. The greater the sinner the greater the saint, says The Courier. Mr. Southey's Muse is confessedly not a vestal; but then she is what is much better, a Magdalen. Now a Magdalen is a person who has returned to her first habits and notions of virtue: but Mr. Southey's laurelled Muse is at present in high court-keeping, and tosses up her nose at the very mention of reform. Nor do we think Mr. Southey has a fairer claim to the degree of respectability good-naturedly assigned him by his friends, that of a pickpocket or highwayman turned thief-taker or king's evidence; for he in fact belies his own character to blacken every honest principle, and takes the government reward for betraying better men than himself. There are, as The Courier observes, youthful indiscretions; but there are also riper and more deliberate errors. A woman is more liable to prostitute her person at nineteen—a man is more likely to prostitute his understanding at forty. We do not see the exact parallel which The Courier sets up between moral repentance and political profligacy. A man, says The Courier, may surely express an abhorrence of his past vices, as of drunkenness. Yes; and he may also express a great abhorrence of his present vices, because his own opinion, as well as that of all impartial persons, condemns his conduct; but it would be curious if a man were to express a great abhorrence of his present opinions, and it is only a less degree of absurdity for a man to express a great abhorrence of his past opinions; for if he was not a hypocrite, he must have held those opinions, as he holds his present ones, because he thought them right. A man is at liberty to condemn his errors in practice as much as he pleases: it is a point agreed upon. But he is not at liberty to condemn his errors in theory at the same unmerciful rate, because many people still think them right; because it is the height of arrogance in him to assume his own forfeited opinion as the invariable standard of right and wrong, and the height of indecency to ascribe the conclusions of others to bad motives, by which he can only arraign his own. Certainly, all the presumption of indirect and dishonest motives lies against Mr. Southey's unlooked-for conversion, and not against his original principles. Will he deny this himself? He must then retract what he says in the Quarterly Review; for he there says, that "the late war was so popular for three and twenty years together, that for any one to be against it," (and much more, to be a Jacobin, as he was, half that time,) "exposed him to contempt, insult, persecution, the loss of property, and even of life." The odds, we grant, were against Mr. Southey's pure reason; they proved too much for it. According, however, to the new theory of political integrity, to be a steady, consistent, conscientious Whig or Tory, is nothing. It is the change of opinion that stamps its value on it; and the more outrageous the change, the more meritorious the stigma attached to it. It is the sacrifice of all principle, that is the triumph of corruption; it is the shameless effrontery of a desertion of the people, that is the chief recommendation to the panders of a court; it is the contempt, the grinning scorn and infamy, which is poured on all patriotism and independence, by shewing the radical baseness and fickleness of its professors in the most startling point of view, that strengthens the rotten foundations of power, by degrading human nature. Poor Bob Southey! how they laugh at him! What are the abuse and contumely which we are in the habit of bestowing upon him, compared with the cordial contempt, the flickering sneers, that play round the lips of his new-fangled friends, when they see "the Man of Humanity" decked out in the trappings of his prostitution, and feel the rankling venom of their hearts soothed by the flattering reflection that virtue and genius are mere marketable commodities! What a squeeze must that be which Mr. Canning gives the hand that wrote the Sonnet to Old Sarum, and the Defence of Rotten Boroughs in the Quarterly Review! Mr. Canning was at first suspected of being the author of this last article: no one has attributed Wat Tyler to the classical pen of that glib orator and consistent anti-jacobin. Yet what are the pretensions of that gentleman's profligate consistency opposed to Mr. Southey's profligate versatility; what a pitiful spectacle does his sneaking, servile adherence to a party make, compared with Mr. Southey's barefaced and magnanimous desertion of one! Mr. Canning has indeed served a cause; Mr. Southey has betrayed one. Mr. Canning threw contempt on the cause of liberty by his wit; Mr. Southey has done it by his want of principle. "This, this is the unkindest blow of all." We should not mind any thing but that;—that is the reflection that stabs us:
————"That the law
By which mankind now suffers, is most just.
For by superior energies; more strict
Affiance with each other; faith more firm
In their unhallow'd principles; the bad
Have fairly earned a victory o'er the weak,
The vacillating, inconsistent good."
Mr. Coleridge thinks that this triumph over himself and the Poet-laureate is a triumph to us. God forbid! It shews that he knows as little about us as he does about himself. This question of apostacy may be summed up in a very few words:—First, if Mr. Southey is not an apostate, we should like to know who ever was? Secondly, whether the term, apostate, is a term of reproach? If it has ceased to be so, it is another among the triumphs of the present king's reign, and a greater proof than any brought forward in the Quarterly Review, of the progress of public spirit and political independence among us of late years! A man may change his opinion. Good. But if he changes his opinion as his interest or vanity would prompt, if he deserts the weak to go to the stronger side, the change is a suspicious one; and we shall have a right to impute it rather to a defect of moral principle than to an accession of intellectual strength. Again, no man, be he who he may, has a right to change his opinion, and to be violent on opposite sides of a question. For the only excuse for dogmatical intolerance is, that the person who holds an opinion is totally blinded by habit to all objections against it, so that he can see nothing wrong on his own side, and nothing right on the other; which cannot be the case with any person who has been sincere in the opposite opinion. No one, therefore, has a right to call another "the greatest of scoundrels" for holding the opinions which he himself once held, without first formally acknowledging that he himself was the greatest of hypocrites when he maintained those opinions. When Mr. Southey subscribes to these conditions, we will give him a license to rail on whom and as long as he pleases: but not—till then! Apostates are violent in their opinions, because they suspect their truth, even when they are most sincere: they are forward to vilify the motives of those who differ from them, because their own are more than suspected by the world! We proceed to notice the flabby defence of "the Wat Tyler" from the well-known pen of Mr. Coleridge, which, as far as we can understand it, proceeds upon the following assumptions:—
1. That Mr. Southey was only 19 when he wrote it, and had forgotten, from that time to this, all the principles and sentiments contained in it.
Answer. A person who forgets all the sentiments and principles to which he was most attached at nineteen, can have no sentiments ever after worth being attached to. Further, it is not true that Mr. Southey gave up the general principles of Wat Tyler, which he wrote at nineteen, till almost as many years after. He did not give them up till many years after he had received his Irish pension in 1800. He did not give them up till with this leaning to something beyond "the slides of his magic lanthorn," and "the pleasing fervour of his imagination," he was canted out of them by the misty metaphysics of Mr. Coleridge, Mr. Southey being no conjurer in such matters, and Mr. Coleridge being a great quack. The dates of his works will shew this: as it was indeed excellently well shewn in The Morning Chronicle the other day. His Joan of Arc, his Sonnets and Inscriptions, his Letters from Spain and Portugal, his Annual Anthology, in which was published Mr. Coleridge's "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," are a series of invectives against Kings, Priests, and Nobles, in favour of the French Revolution, and against war and taxes, up to the year 1803. Why does he not get an injunction against all these? To set aside all Mr. Southey's jacobin publications, it would be necessary to erect a new court of Chancery. Mr. Coleridge's insinuation, that he had changed all his opinions the year after, when Mr. S. and Mr. C., in conjunction, wrote the Fall of Robespierre, is, therefore, not true. But Mr. Coleridge never troubles himself about facts or dates; he is only "watching the slides of his magic lanthorn," and indulging in "the pleasing fervour of poetical inspiration."
2. That Mr. Southey was a mere boy when he wrote Wat Tyler, and entertained Jacobin opinions: that being a child, he felt as a child, and thought slavery, superstition, war, famine, bloodshed, taxes, bribery and corruption, rotten boroughs, places and pensions, shocking things; but that now he is become a man, he has put away childish things, and thinks there is nothing so delightful as slavery, superstition, war, famine, bloodshed, taxes, bribery and corruption, rotten boroughs, places and pensions, and particularly, his own.
Answer. Yet Mr. Coleridge tells us that when he wrote Wat Tyler, he was a man of genius and learning. That Mr. Southey was a wise man when he wrote this poem, we do not pretend: that he has ever been so, is more than we know. This we do know, and it is worth attending to; that all that Mr. Southey has done best in poetry, he did before he changed his political creed; that all that Mr. Coleridge ever did in poetry, as the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, the Three Graves, his Poems and his Tragedy, he had written when, according to his own account, he must have been a very ignorant, idle, thoughtless person; that much the greater part of what Mr. Wordsworth has done best in poetry was done about the same period; and if what these persons have done in poetry, in indulging the "pleasing fervour of a lively imagination," gives no weight to their political opinions at the time they did it, what they have done since in science or philosophy to establish their authority, is more than we know. All the authority that they have as poets and men of genius must be thrown into the scale of Revolution and Reform. Their Jacobin principles indeed gave rise to their Jacobin poetry. Since they gave up the first, their poetical powers have flagged, and been comparatively or wholly "in a state of suspended animation." Their genius, their style, their versification, every thing down to their spelling, was revolutionary. Their poetical innovations unhappily did not answer any more than the French Revolution. As their ambition was baulked in this first favourite direction, it was necessary for these restless persons to do something to get into notice; as they could not change their style, they changed their principles; and instead of writing popular poetry, fell to scribbling venal prose.—Mr. Southey's opinion, like Mr. Wordsworth's or Mr. Coleridge's, is of no value, except as it is his own, the unbiassed, undepraved dictate of his own understanding and feelings; not as it is a wretched, canting, reluctant echo of the opinion of the world. Poet-laureates are courtiers by profession; but we say that poets are naturally Jacobins. All the poets of the present day have been so, with a single exception, which it would be invidious to mention. If they have not all continued so, this only shews the instability of their own characters, and that their natural generosity and romantic enthusiasm, "their lofty, imaginative, and innocent spirits," have not been proof against the incessant, unwearied importunities of vulgar ambition. The poets, we say then, are with us, while they are worth keeping. We take the sound part of their heads and hearts, and make Mr. Croker and the Courier a present of the rest. What the philosophers are, let the dreaded name of modern philosophy answer!
3. Mr. Coleridge compares us to the long-eared virtuoso, the ass, that found Apollo's lute, "left behind by him when he ascended to his own natural place, to sit thenceforward with all the Muses around him, instead of the ragged cattle of Admetus."
Answer. Now it seems that Mr. Coleridge and other common friends of his, such as the author of the Fall of Robespierre and of Democratic Lectures, or Lectures on Democracy, in the year 1794, knew a good deal of Mr. Southey before he dropped this lute. Were they the ragged cattle of Admetus that Mr. Southey was fain to associate with during his obscure metamorphosis and strange Jacobin disguise? Did the Coleridges, the Wordsworths, the Lloyds and Lambs and Co. precede the Hunts, the Hazlitts, and the Cobbetts, in listening to Mr. Southey "tuning his mystic harp to praise Lepaux," the Parisian Theo-philanthropist? And is it only since Mr. Southey has sat "quiring to the young-eyed cherubim," with the Barrymores, the Crokers, the Giffords, and the Stroehlings, that his natural genius and moral purity of sentiment have found their proper level and reward? Be this as it may, we plead guilty to the charge of some little indiscreet admiration of the Apollo of Jacobinism. We did not however find his lute three and twenty years after he had dropped it "in a thistle." We saw it in his hands. We heard him with our own ears play upon it, loud and long; and we can swear he was as well satisfied with his own music as we could be. "Asinos asinina decent,"—a bad compliment, in the style of Dogberry, which Mr. C. pays to his friend and to himself, as one of his early ragged auditors. Now whether Mr. Southey has since that period ascended to heaven or descended to the earth, we shall leave it to Mr. Coleridge himself to decide. For he says, that at the time when the present poet-laureate wrote Wat Tyler, he (Mr. Southey) was "a young man full of glorious visions concerning the possibilities of human nature, because his lofty, imaginative, and innocent spirit, had mistaken its own virtues and powers for the average character of mankind."— Since Mr. Southey went to court, he has changed his tone. Asinos asinina decent. Is that Mr. Coleridge's political logic?
4. That Mr. Southey did not express his real opinions, even at that time, in Wat Tyler, which is a dramatic poem, in which mob-orators and rioters figure, with appropriate sentiments, as Jack Cade may do in Shakespear.
Answer. This allusion to the dramatic characters of Shakespear is certainly unfortunate, and Mr. Coleridge himself hints as much. Rioters and mob-preachers are not the only persons who appear in "the Wat Tyler." The King and the Archbishop come forward in their own persons, according to Mr. Coleridge, with appropriate sentiments, labelled and put into their mouths. For example:—
The very burden of The Courier all last week, and for many weeks last past and to come.
Philpot. Every moment brings
Fresh tidings of our peril.
King. It were well
To yield them what they ask.
Archbishop, Aye, that my liege
Were politic. Go boldly forth to meet them.
Grant all they ask—however wild and ruinous;—
Meantime, the troops you have already summoned
Will gather round them. Then my Christian power
Absolves you of your promise.
Walworth. Were but their ringleaders cut off, the rabble
Would soon disperse.
5. Mr. Coleridge sums up his opinion of the ultimate design and secret origin of "the Wat Tyler" in these remarkable words:—"We should have seen that the vivid, yet indistinct images in which he had painted the evils of war and the hardships of the poor, proved that neither the forms nor the feelings were the result of real observation. The product of the poet's own fancy, they"—[viz. the evils of war and the hardships of the poor]—"were impregnated, therefore, with that pleasurable fervour which is experienced in all energetic exertion of intellectual power. But as to any serious wish, akin to reality," [that is, to remove these evils] "as to any real persons or events designed or expected, we should think it just as wise and just as charitable, to believe that Quevedo or Dante would have been glad to realise the horrid phantoms and torments of imaginary oppressors, whom they beheld in the infernal regions—i.e. on the slides of their own magic lanthorn."
Answer. The slides of the guillotine, excited (as we have been told) the same pleasurable fervour in Mr. Southey's mind: and Mr. Coleridge seems to insinuate, that the 5,800,000 lives which have been lost to prove mankind the property of kings, by divine right, have been lost "on the slides of a magic lanthorn;" the evils of war, like all other actual evils, being "the products of a fervid imagination." So much for the sincerity of poetry.
Audrey. Is not poetry a true thing?
Would these gentlemen persuade us that there is nothing evil in the universe but what exists in their imagination, but what is the product of their fervid fancy? That the world is full of nothing but their egotism, their vanity, and their hypocrisy? The world is sick of them, their egotism, their vanity, and their hypocrisy.
6th and lastly. "Mr. Southey's darling poet from his childhood was Edmund Spenser, from whom, next to the spotless purity of his own moral habits, he learned that reverence for
Unspotted faith, and comely womanhood,
Regard of honour and mild modesty."
"And we are strongly persuaded that the indignation which, in his early perusal of our history, the outrage on Wat Tyler's Daughter had kindled within him, was the circumstance that recommended the story to his choice for the first powerful exercise of his dramatic powers. It is this, too, we doubt not, that coloured and shaped his feelings during the whole composition of the drama.
"Through the allegiance and just fealty
Which he did owe unto all womankind."
Mr. Coleridge might as well tell us that the Laureate wrote Wat Tyler as an Epithalamium on his own marriage. There is but one line on the subject from the beginning to the end. No; it is not Mr. Southey's way to say nothing on the subject on which he writes. If this were the main drift and secret spring of the poem, why does Mr. Southey wish to retract it now? Has he been taught by his present fashionable associates to laugh at Edmund Spenser, the darling of the boy Southey, to abjure "his allegiance and just fealty to all womankind," and to look upon "rapes and ravishments" as "exaggerated evils," the product of an idle imagination, exciting a pleasurable fervour at the time, and signifying nothing afterwards? Is the outrage upon Wat Tyler's Daughter the only evil in history, or in the poem itself, which ought to inflame the virtuous indignation of the full-grown stripling bard? Are all the other oppressions recorded in the annals of the world nothing but "horrible shadows, unreal mockeries," that this alone should live "within the book and volume of his brain unmixed with baser matter?" Or has Mr. Southey, the historian and the politician, at last discovered, that even this evil, the greatest and the only evil in the world, and not a mere illusion of his boyish imagination, is itself a bagatelle, compared with the blessings of the poll-tax, feudal vassalage, popery, and slavery, the attempt to put down which by murder, insurrection, and treason, in the reign of Richard II. the poet-laureate once celebrated con amore in "the Wat Tyler?"—In courtly malice and servility Mr. Southey has outdone Herodias's daughter. He marches into Chancery "with his own head in a charger," as an offering to Royal delicacy. He plucks out the heart of Liberty within him, and mangles his own breast to stifle every natural sentiment left there: and yet Mr. Coleridge would persuade us that this stuffed figure, this wretched phantom, is the living man. The finery of birth-day suits has dazzled his senses, so that he has "no speculation in those eyes that he does glare with;" yet Mr. Coleridge would persuade us that this is the clear-sighted politician. Famine stares him in the face, and he looks upon her with lack-lustre eye. Despotism hovers over him, and he says, "Come, let me clutch thee." He drinks the cup of human misery, and thinks it is a cup of sack. He has no feeling left, but of "tickling commodity;" no ears but for court whispers; no understanding but of his interest; no passion but his vanity. And yet they would persuade us that this non-entity is somebody—"the chief dread of Jacobins and Jacobinism, of quacks and quackery." If so, Jacobins and Jacobinism have not much to fear; and Mr. Coleridge may publish as many Lay Sermons as he pleases.
There is but one statement in the article in The Courier to which we can heartily assent; it is Mr. Southey's prediction of the fate of the French Revolution. "The Temple of Despotism," he said, "would be rebuilt, like that of the Mexican God, with human skulls, and cemented with human blood." He has lived to see this; to assist in the accomplishment of his prophecy, and to consecrate the spectre-building with pensioned hands!
- Of the three persons that Mr. Coleridge, by a most preposterous anachronism, has selected to compose his asinine auditory, Mr. Hunt was at the time in question a boy at school, not a stripling bard of nineteen or nine and twenty, but a real school-boy "declaiming on the patriotism of Brutus." As to Mr. Cobbett, he would at that time, had they come in his way, with one kick of his hard hoofs, have made a terrible crash among "the green corn" of Mr. Southey's Jacobin Pan's-pipe, and gone near to knock out the musician's brains into the bargain. The second person in this absurd trinity, who certainly thinks it "a robbery to be made equal to the other two," was the only hearer present at the rehearsal of Mr. Southey's overtures to Liberty and Equality, and to that "long-continued asinine bravura," which rings in Mr. Coleridge's ears, but which certainly was not unaccompanied, for he himself was present; and those who know this gentleman, know that on these occasions he performs the part of a whole chorus.