Robert Southey

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1606

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 began with a single and momentary sin of the passions by an otherwise consistently virtuous monarch and proceeded to unravel the consequences: the slaughter of Christians by Moors in a battle lasting eight days; the king’s escape after the battle and his deep remorse and self-inflicted penance of a long and solitary hermitage while others thought that he had been slain; the king’s dream, in which his mother appears with instructions to deliver his country from the Moors; and the departure and eventual encounter with the sole survivor of a massacre, who tells the king of the tragedy and inspires him to both personal and patriotic revenge. Southey demonstrated, in Roderick, the Last of the Goths, his ability to sustain a narrative while at the same time developing a character, a hero, through a series of meaningful and related adventures: Roderick, in the guise of a priest, passes through the country, meets old friends, and is recognized only by his dog. Finally, the king leads his forces in triumph over the Moors, after which he disappears.

Southey achieved effective rhythm to complement the narrative of Roderick’s adventures by taking full advantage of proper names derived from Spanish and from various Moorish and Gothic dialects. He sought diversity of both rhythm and language, knowing well how John Milton, for example, had underscored the substance of his theme in the opening book of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) with his roll call of Satan’s evil host. Thus, in a single passage of twenty-six lines from book 4, the poet relies on the effect of a dozen or so proper names to vary his rhythm, as

Skirting the heights of Aguiar, he reachedThat consecrated pile amid the wildWhich sainted Fructuoso in his zealReared to St. Felix, on Visionia’s banks.

Further, Southey reinforced his narrative with heavy descriptions of natural scenery, furnishing rhetorical respites from the action and the passion of events. He viewed such pauses as essential to the long narrative poem, particularly when they followed long episodes of emotional strain or exaltation. From a positive point of view, the descriptive respites filled the imagination with the sights and the sounds of the beauties of nature, allowing the long narrative poem to serve as a true work of creative art. Southey made such attempts in all his long poems, but he reached the highest levels of perfection in Roderick, the Last of the Goths.

“Ode, Written during the Negotiations with Buonaparte, in January 1814”

Although Southey’s occasional poetry includes his weakest efforts, there are rare moments of eloquence when the poet is able to give free rein to his emotions. Consider, for example, his “Ode, Written during the Negotiations with Buonaparte, in January 1814.” Southey truly detested the diminutive emperor of the French, and he attacked his subject on moral grounds, as well as on the obvious political and patriotic levels. His passions were further aroused by the sight of those individuals who worshiped what they believed to have been the wonders of Napoleon’s political and military successes. The poet saw the emperor only as a mean tyrant: “And ne’er was earth with verier tyrant curst,/ Bold man and bad,/ Remorseless, godless, full of fraud and lies”; for those personal and political crimes, demanded Southey, Napoleon must pay with his life.

“Funeral Ode on the Death of the Princess Charlotte”

Another of Southey’s occasional poems, the “Funeral Ode on the Death of the Princess Charlotte,” should be mentioned because its lines are as sensitive and serene as those on Napoleon are harsh and bitter. The poet gazes about the burial grounds at Windsor, where, “in thy sacred shade/ Is the Flower of Brunswick laid!” Then, further surveying the scene, he comments on others lying there—Henry, Edward, Elizabeth, Ann Seymour, and Mary Stuart. Nevertheless, the piece serves as more than a roll call of history, for Southey loses sight of neither his subject nor the tragedy of Charlotte’s passing: “Never more lamented guest/ Was in Windsor laid to rest.”

Legacy

In the final analysis, Southey must be seen as a nineteenth century child of the Augustan Age who contributed little to the poetry of Romanticism. Confusion arises when literary historians too quickly connect him with Wordsworth and Coleridge, forgetting, perhaps, that the relationship existed on a personal rather than an artistic level. Artistically and intellectually, Southey had almost nothing in common with the major figures among the first generation of British Romantic poets. He waited until practically the end of his literary life—in the preface to the 1837-1838 edition of his Poetical Works—before setting forth what amounted to his poetical and intellectual declaration of independence from the new literature of pre-Victorian England. Southey chose to spend a lifetime with his books, rather than in the company of men; he would retire to a life of literary pursuit, “communing with my own heart, and taking that course which upon mature consideration seemed best to myself.”

Southey further maintained that he had no need for the new schools of poetry, for he had learned poetry from the masters, confirmed it in his youth, and exemplified it in his own writing. Indeed, few would deny Professor Renwick’s assertion that “No poet since Dryden wrote such pure clean English so consistently.” Unfortunately, unlike his contemporaries who set and then followed new trends, Southey seemed more inclined to practice and develop the craft of poetry rather than its art. He never really learned (either in or out of school) that poetry had to come from sources other than labor and learning. Nevertheless, he possessed an ardent and genial piety, a moral strength, a poetic power of depth and variety, and an ability to develop a range of literary forms and interests. In those respects, he deserved the name and the honor of poet laureate.

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Southey, Robert