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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Mr. Southey.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 5  (29 January 1828)  65-66.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 5. LONDON, TUESDAY, January 29, 1828. Price 8d.


No. III.—Mr. Southey.

A poet, a biographer, a writer of literary miscellanies, an antiquarian, a translator, an historian of campaigns, and churches, and nations, a celebrated and voluminous reviewer, himself the object of frequent and bitter criticism; in his youth the framer of ideal republics, in his manhood the advocate of desolating wars and political monopolies, in his age the chronicler of methodism and martyrs, throughout life, as a member of private society, the most uniformly amiable and puce, and, at the same time, the fiercest and most unrelenting follower of a public faction:—Such are the various characters in which Mr. Southey stands before the public. To speak of such a person is a task not to be undertaken with levity; for the fame of a good man is a treasure to his race, no less than to himself, and ought, above all things, to be holy from the touch of the slightest misrepresentation. In this spirit we trust to write; and if, as we must, we shall offend some by too much praise of Mr. Southey, and others, by too much blame; and especially if we shall wound his own vanity, we can only hope that neither the public nor himself will be so uncandid as to attribute our errors to any thing but a mistaken judgment, always anxious to be set right.

We have no pretensions to any private knowledge of Mr. Southey’s life, and really can say nothing as to the portions of his mind which do not display themselves in his works, except that we are acquainted, as is all the world, with those descriptions of his domestic wisdom and kindness which we owe to more than one of his eminent contemporaries. In other respects, we judge him from his writings alone. He brought with him into manhood, if not a peculiar robustness of intellect, yet a singular healthiness of feeling. He then had, and he happily still preserves, a strong sense of the presence and goodness of God, whose existence he seems to have found manifested, not amid the dissections of the anatomist, nor in the crucible of the chemist, nor in any thing appertaining to the order of this visible world, but as a life and power in the depths of his own heart. He saw the Deity in every thing around him, because he felt his spirit eternally within him and his sympathy with man forbade him to believe that religion was a thing of external symbols, dogmatic creeds, and endowed establishments—an excrescence on our nature, appropriated to those who happen to have been educated under certain external influences, and to have been born members of particular sects. He was conscious of the germs of a higher state of being than the actual, moving and growing in his own mind; and comparing these intimations of possible glory, with the condition of humanity around him, he was eager to push mankind boldly forward in the path of regeneration, to pour out before the world appeals against the tyrannies and corruptions of society, and, if possible, even to realize and substantiate beneath the eyes of men the phantasm of a more harmonious and pregnant system. But the resolution to accomplish this great work at a single plunge, instead of labouring soberly and earnestly through life, and catching at every occasion as it rose, could not support itself except by a violent and self-exhausting excitement. While, on the other hand, to maintain an unceasing, and often an obscure and unapplauded warfare, against all the myriad universal evils of our present social organization, requires more sedateness of enthusiasm than Mr. Southey seems to have possessed. The ardour of his aspirations declined; and he began to look out for circumstances in the condition of things around him to which he might attach his philanthropical longings, and console himself, by a notion of their excellence, for the loss of his former visions of ideal perfection.

The tendency to his former unsectarian Catholicism of religion still continued, in some degree, to animate his mind, and has given all that they have of moral value to his poetical writings. This enabled him to imbue with love, humility, and strength of heart, many of the personages whom he introduces in his longer poems, and alone lent to his tales any of that thrilling atmosphere of real existence with which his utter want of mere dramatic power would otherwise have prevented him from inspiring them. But for this feeling of brotherhood with all mankind, which teaches him to see in God an essential love breathing into all much a capacity for higher than earthly things, and not the mere founder of the Church of England, and a name to be flung in the teeth of modern Atheists,—his poems would be little more than heaps of passages from old books of travels, diluted into loose and eccentric metre. But his natural piety has taught him to see in the external world much of what it really embodies of lovely and delightful, and in the heart of man an inexhaustible fountain of magnificent hopes and gentle impulses; and from these he has extracted the sweet substance of some of the most graceful and gorgeous narratives that the present generation of poets have produced. We do not, indeed, hold him to be a poet of the highest class; and his mind is fundamentally so interior to those of Spenser and Shakspeare, Milton and Wordsworth, that we scarce remember a better illustration of the difference between first-rate and second-rate men. The masters of ideal creation have doubtless given us, in their writings, either a fragment of that universe which, with all its mysteries and complications, lies so much brighter in the mind of a man of genius, than before the thoughts of society,—or some mighty truth of our nature, which grew up in their bosoms with all its pomp of symbol, and allusion, and shadowy story, till it swelled out and blossomed upon the world,—or some epitome of humanity, such as Hamlet, or Faust, or the Hero of the Excursion, connected with earth and daily interests by weaknesses and necessities, but gazing and struggling upward, and in whom the involved threads of hopes and doubts twist themselves with the vast web of universal being, and stretch away into its dim abysses; they have always, in short, given its a manifestation of that genius, the elements of whose power are truth and love, displaying itself through outward and accidental forms, the lifeless matter which the poet piles or scatters around him at his will, but never putting these forward as objects of interest in themselves, and unconnected with the spirit of which they are the conduit, and the laws of which they are the type. Not the stone on which the commandments were engraved, lent them their importance, nor would, though it had been jasper or emerald,—neither was it the lightning, or the cloud, or the summit of the holy mountain quaking with the revelation, but the presence of the Power which sat behind the flame and the darkness, and which stamped its wisdom on the dead tablets. Mr. Southey seems first to have determined to write a poem, not with any high and solemn purpose, but connected with some particular age or country, which would supply him with a splendid phantasmagoria of scenery; then to have brought together, from books, all the descriptions and incidents that could be introduced; and, lastly, to have thought of personages, who, as the offspring of an elegant and amiable mind, partake of its pure and benevolent nature, but so as to appear mere abstractions of virtue, not beings of mingled character, and mysterious destiny, with a thousand aimless yearnings, and a thousand haughty hopes, and vague vet delightful sympathies, mingled with degrading propensities and passionate selfishness, He displays a vast variety of scenic pomp; but, in general, it seems as if his personages were brought there for the sake of showing the prospect to his readers: just as in our pantomimes, the jokes, and life, and character, are omitted, and two or three mutes walk along the stage, while the scene displays to us a moving picture of seas and cities, triumphs and enchantments.

Our readers then understand, that we consider Mr. Southey a poet of no higher than the second order—a judgment which we have come to when estimating him by his best and not by his worst poems, by ‘Roderick’ and ‘Kehama,’ not by the ‘Vision of Judgment,’ or the ‘Tale of Paraguay.’ Yet, though we think his poetry inferior to that of many other English authors, it seems to its to display his mind in a more nearly perfect state than we find it in any of his other kinds of writing. As mere composition, the verse is far from being so faultless as the prose. But the feeling displayed in Thalaba is incomparably better than that of the ‘Quarterly Review,’ the ‘Book of the Church,’ or the ‘History of the Peninsular War.’ There is in his poetry none of the bitterness of the daily bread earned for themselves by the followers of a faction. In it he does not write with the perpetual consciousness that he is the gladiator of a sect or a party: we do not see him constantly spitting gall and venom at every one who differs from himself in religion or politics: he feels no yoke but the easy one of our common humanity; is moved by no passion but the love of goodness, and gentleness, and truth; and looks at mankind, not as followers or enemies of a particular ecclesiastical establishment; not as republicans, or royalists, or aristocrats, but as heirs of one nature, brethren of one house, and partakers of one blessed hope.

When we consider Mr. Southey in any other light than as a poet, we confess that we feel a degree of sorrow in which many of our readers will hardly sympathise. It seems to us that every thing was correct in his mind, at the beginning of his career, except an excessive vanity, and a want of courage to stand before the world but as a member of a party,—but for these qualities, we believe that a future, the most honourable and useful, might well have been predicted to him. But he began to think that political perfection was confined to our own Constitution, and that Christianity was identical with the English Church Establishment. From that time, he has daily become more and more of a partisan,—daily more and more of a sectarian. It is easy to say that he admires the present form of the British Government,
because he thinks it the best calculated to produce national happiness; and that he lauds endowments and pluralities, because he believes them most consonant to the apostolical model; but it is evident from the whole tone of his writings, that the actual objects of his respect and love, are not good government and true Christianity for themselves, but good government and true religion, as by law established,—in short, Church and State—the Aristocracy and the Bench of Bishops.

Thence the habit of the politician, of abusing every one, however sincerely attached to the interests of mankind, who has attempted to reform the government of his own country, or thinks that we ought to attempt it in ours. Thence the fondness of the theologian for swelling the bodies of his sentences with ‘the Church of England,’ while he puts Providence into a parenthesis. And thence above all, the violence, we had almost said the malignity, otherwise so utterly inexplicable, displayed by a pious and benevolent man against all from whom he differs, of every period and denomination: against, that is, nine-tenths of all sects and parties, and especially against those wiser and better men, who seeing in the spirit of sectarianism, one of the greatest afflictions of humanity, have sedulously avoided its enslaving and corrupting influence.

He is, indeed, a mournful example of the ruin which may be wrought upon the fairest minds, by attaching an universal feeling to particular institutions, and by professing to find all truth in the creed of one establishment. In this case the whole spiritual nature of man is narrowed into an almost mechanical clinging to a few valueless sounds, the images, perhaps, of nothing either in earth or heaven, but of the stupid bigotry that invented them. The attributes of Deity become the watchwords of intolerance and uncharitableness,—and Christianity itself, instead of being a scheme for the perfecting our nature into purity and love, is changed into a volume of dissonant war-cries, while ‘the whole armour of God’ is employed for the unhallowed strife of worldly passions.

It is obvious also, that in politics, so soon as ceasing to look forward for improvement, the activity of Mr. Southey’s mind attached itself to things as they are, he began to look back into the past, to find supports for his opinion: and because he wished to make out that the present government is a good one, he perverts the whole aspect of history. Strafford and Laud were put to death by political reformers; and therefore, out of hatred to all reform, and as a means of bringing dislike on modern innovators; Strafford becomes a martyr to his benevolent and unselfish patriotism; and the sickening blood-thirstiness of Laud is to be buried in eternal oblivion. We doubt not that Mr. Southey is quite sincere in thinking that a purely aristocratic constitution is the best possible form of government. But moved by this conviction, he speaks of all who think otherwise with an abhorrence, which he probably justifies to himself by the consideration, that they are enemies to the happiness of mankind, without reflecting that other men may honestly think just as ill of his opinions as he of theirs, and that neither party would be excusable in slandering and misrepresenting the other.

In spite of the excesses into which Mr. Southey has been betrayed, his natural kindness breaks out very frequently through the fretful load of prejudices and dislikes, wherewith years of partizanship have encumbered him: while his propensity to vituperation usually displays itself most strongly on the points, with regard to which he has himself been in the habit of disputing. He hates Roman Catholics, he hates Calvinists, he hates Unitarians, he hates Frenchmen, who, in his eyes, are almost all Atheists and Jacobins; he thinks the Whigs a very dangerous set of men, he believes that the Edinburgh Review is possessed by Satan, and above all, he abhors every one who dreams of introducing any reforms into England

Yet with all this, we verily believe few men would take more trouble to confer a service on the people of Mexico, or Arabia, or even, if an opportunity presented itself, would seize with more anxiety an opportunity of doing good to his enemies. The Edinburgh Review has uniformly dealt him hard and unjust measure; and all his political opponents have been eager enough to return the blows which he has shewn the example of inflicting; and though his attacks on Lord Byron are very silly, his Lordship disgraced himself, and disgusted the better portion of his readers, by the brutality with which he carried on the war. It is not very wonderful therefore that a person, who, however amiable, is by no means remarkable for humility, should have frequently lost temper against these antagonists. But what we complain of is, that on all occasions when he happens to have an occasion for wounding the feelings of those who are at least towards him guiltless, he displays precisely the same malevolence, and that no man can expect to be treated with ordinary candour who does not agree with him on every possible subject, repeat the Laureate creed, and bow before the Keswick idols.

Whatever be his faults, he must, as long as he lives and writes, continue to be a popular author. As a mere controversialist, (the most melancholy mockery of humanity we know, except the monkeys of Exeter Change,) his abilities and information can never be despised; though in this department (the garrets) of literature, he shows to the least advantage. He has abundant information, and a ready grace in applying it; but he wants the subtlety of argumentation and bitterness of sarcasm, which are so large ingredients in the finished polemic. He generally substitutes for reasoning mere assertion and authority, and downright abuse for satire. The construction of his sentences, the clearness of his arrangement, and the liveliness of his narrative, are admirably adapted for history. But from the want of all power of philosophising, he looks at events as naked facts rather than as developements of principles; or if he ever recurs to general laws, they are of the most common-place description. As a writer of biographies, and of essays of amusing information, scarcely any one, we believe, ever excelled him. His Life of Nelson has been much praised, but not more than it deserves, for unaffected simplicity and unexaggerated earnestness. His writings probably cover more paper than those of any one now living, except indeed the gentleman in the farce, who “has written all the newspapers in Europe for many years.” They contain a wonderful mass of elegant composition and pleasant research, of lively description and animated narrative; but when we consider the effect they must have had in rendering popular his narrow system of politics and religion, we are reluctantly compelled to doubt whether they have not, on the whole, accomplished more of evil than of good. He has long announced a book on a more fruitful and difficult subject than any that he has previously treated of, “The Progress and Prospects of Society;” but though we shall be curious to see him make the experiment, we would advise him, as he values his reputation, to think well before he publishes such a work. It is all very well to talk of the balance of the Constitution, and the arm of Providence revealing itself in our favour in the Peninsular war, when, as in the Quarterly Review, there are facilities for assuming conclusions, and escaping from proofs; but it will not do in a separate and formal discussion of the powers and destiny of the human race, a subject which has employed the greatest men the world has ever known from Plato until our own day. On such a subject it will not be sufficient to represent irresponsible aristocracies as the saints that shall inherit the earth, or to clothe the angel of the world in lawn-sleeves and a cassock.

On the whole, Mr. Southey’s chief talent appears to us to be style. Though sometimes a little affected, and oven that but rarely, his composition, on the whole, is wonderfully clear, careful, and animated. But here, we are afraid, the chief part of our praise stops,—for he has no wit and very, little eloquence,—qualities, by the by, which generally go together. He has none of the sprightly fancy of Mr. Moore,—none of the elevating imagination of Wordsworth. He never could have written half as much as he has, if his books required any great expense of thought; but they really appear to us to exhibit none at all; and the research they display, though laborious and astonishingly extensive, yet costs infinitely less of real intellectual toil and weariness, than the deducing subtle conclusions from vast and complicated premises, and the binding together and arranging masses of disjointed facts by the application of great general laws. But Mr. Southey, happily for his present ease, fame, and profit, has no such troublesome propensity. He seems, in fact, to have a fainter conception of any thing like abstract speculation than any living author of nearly equal celebrity, except only his sole competitor in quantity of writing—Sir Walter Scott. And it must necessarily be so. Great thinkers express wide principles in few words. But nine-tenths of all the events and personages chronicled by the poet-laurent, do not appear in his pages such as naturally connect themselves with any universal principle or permanent consciousness of the human mind, and do not seem to have been the occasion of any feeling in his breast, but contempt for some rival dogmatist, or exultation over some inaccurate historian. Few of his works can live among future generations. For the subjects of his writings, the selfish wars of governments, and the religious systems that narrow themselves into creeds, except as warnings to be shuddered at, must happily lose their interest for our children. But we confess we regret that his poetry is not of a more condensed and concentrated character; for there is a delicacy and sweetness of feeling, and a splendour of descriptive diction, which, if less diluted and impoverished by verbiage, so as to outlast the fluctuations of the hour, would give as much delight to all future ages as they have already conferred on the instructed and gentle of our own day.