Robert Southey Essay - Critical Essays


Robert Southey’s poetical career proved, indeed, to have been a struggle: His desire to create from impulse and inspiration came into conflict with his duty to earn money from his pen. During his early period, he wrote a large number of ballads and metrical tales for the Morning Post at the then-going rate of one guinea a week. When he republished those in book form, money again became the principal motive, as it did once more in 1807 when he had to support Coleridge’s family as well as his own. At that time, he announced that, if necessary, he would take on more reviews and articles for the magazines and would write additional verses for the newspapers. Thus, judgment and analysis of his poetry must balance what Southey wanted to do with what he had to do. Throughout his professional life, he tried desperately to preserve the time for literary labors worthy of his talent; as long as that division existed, he could perform his hackwork without fear of humiliation or sacrifice. Unfortunately, time and energy eventually failed him, and his poems—both serious and popular—became less salable; after 1820, he saw himself as more historian than poet.

In 1837, two years prior to the illness that would eventually incapacitate him, Southey prepared the last collected edition of his poems to be published during his lifetime. That task provided an opportunity for the poet to survey his own work, to rank as well as to analyze. Thus, concerning the narrative poems, he thought Joan of Arc, written when he was nineteen, to have the least merit, although the piece did constitute the first stage of his poetic development. Thalaba the Destroyer, published five years afterward, allowed Southey to achieve poetic maturity, to set aside the law of nature and permit his poetic fancy to wander freely. For that reason, he chose not to control the rhythmic structure of his blank verse; rather, the lines of that poem follow a spontaneous melody, dividing themselves into varying lengths. In addition, the poet tended to interrupt the ordinary iambic cadence with a sudden trochaic or dactylic movement: for example, “Lo! underneath the broadleaved sycamore/ With lids half closed he lies,/ Dreaming of days to come.”

Religious epics

While a schoolboy at Westminster, Southey had formed the idea of a long poem, epic in form and content, based on each of the important religions (he considered them to be mythologies) of the world. For Islam (then called Mohammedanism), he eventually wrote Thalaba the Destroyer; The Curse of Kehama, published in 1810, focused on Hinduism. In the latter poem, he again allowed his fancy and his imagery to range freely, seemingly unconcerned with the orthodox notions and sympathies of the vast majority of his readers. For whatever the reasons, however, in The Curse of Kehama Southey returned to rhyme; more accurately, he attempted to compromise between the rambling blank verse of Thalaba the Destroyer and the symmetry of the traditional English epic form. Madoc had been begun before he set to work on The Curse of Kehama, but Southey, believing the former to have been his most significant poem, set it aside until he could devote his full attention to it. Finally published in 1805, Madoc evidences a pleasing melody and an easy, fluent, and graceful narrative diction. Unfortunately, it met with the least favorable reception of all his long poems.

Roderick, the Last of the Goths

The failure of Madoc did not deter Southey from his grand epic design. In Roderick, the Last of the Goths, he produced a long narrative poem that succeeded because the versification and theme managed to complement each other. Relying on the issue of subjugation and underlining it with moral grandeur and tragedy, the poet easily held the interest of his contemporary readers. He...

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