Life of Nelson Critical Essays

Robert Southey


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

“What has poor Horatio done, who is so weak, that he, above all the rest [of your children], should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come, and the first time we go into action, a cannonball may knock off his head, and provide for him at once.”

Had Nelson’s uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, been prophetic in this letter to Nelson’s father, the course of English history subsequent to the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) might well have been quite different from what it has been. The weakness of the twelve-year-old Horatio that Captain Suckling referred to was only physical. Weak though he was, Nelson had already given proof of the resoluteness of heart and nobleness of mind that were to characterize his distinguished career.

Always a stranger to fear and a companion of honor, Nelson led the exemplary life that his father foresaw for his son. Nelson’s father had always marked him for success in whatever profession he might follow. Through his indomitable spirit, his seafaring abilities, and his acumen in personal relationships, Nelson was a lieutenant at nineteen, a captain at twenty-one, and an admiral before he was thirty.

From his maiden voyage to India early in his career, Nelson, reduced almost to a skeleton by tropical disease, was returned home. Dejected by his physical condition and the diminished promise of success in his career, he considered suicide for a time. But from this state of mind he suddenly rallied with a feeling bordering on the religious, so obsessed was he by the “sudden glow of patriotism . . . presented by king and country as my patron.”

Southey’s explanation of this fervor and determination that spurred Nelson on to become a hero is compatible in its beauty with the exquisite qualities of a man who surmounted obstacles to have his name become as well known as that of the country for which he achieved heroism:He knew to what the previous state of dejection was to be attributed; that an enfeebled body, and a mind depressed, had cast this shade over his soul; but he always seemed willing to believe, that the sunshine which succeeded bore with it a prophetic glory, and that the light which led him on was “light from heaven.”

Though heroes are often seen in an aura of celestial light and divine guidance, Nelson was most cognizant of mundane matters that need attending to, even though one confides in Providence. His readiness in political strategy was a factor in the first of his three greatest naval successes, the defeat of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir in 1798. For more than a month Nelson’s fleet had sought the French fleet in the Mediterranean. Thwarted at every attempt to get information concerning the French position or to secure supplies, Nelson turned at last to Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the English ambassador to Naples. Through her influence with the Queen of Naples, Nelson secured supplies at Syracuse and began again his pursuit of the French.

Contrary to his command to his men that they obey orders implicitly without questioning their propriety, Nelson, sometimes seeing circumstances in a different light from that of his superiors, did not always obey orders. In the victory at Copenhagen, in 1801, against the armed neutrality of the Baltic, Nelson, second in command, ignored his commander’s order to cease action. Putting his telescope to his blind eye when he was told the signal giving the order had been raised (Nelson had lost the sight of one eye in battle at Calvi), he continued the attack, saying he could not see the signal.

Acting without orders from his commander, Sir John Jervis, Nelson was largely responsible for the defeat of the Spanish fleet at Cape St. Vincent (1797). In that engagement the enemy fleet far outnumbered the English ships,...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)