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Extraordinary Case of the late Mr. Southey.
The Examiner  No. 489  (11 May 1817)  236-37.
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No. 489. SUNDAY, MAY 11, 1817.


ΗχȢον δε ʹας Ȣʹς Πρωτευς ετι χαλεισθαι αξιοι, αλλα Φοινιχα μετωνομχοεν ʹεαντον.

Lucian, de Morte Peregrini.
He would no longer be called Proteus, but a Phœnix.

The reader has probably heard of the eccentric philosopher, Peregrinus Proteus, mentioned in our quotation, who had such an itch upon him for burning his fingers and exposing himself, that he at last fairly lighted his own funeral pile, and died with pompous anticipation of immortality.

We have now to record a case, not so painful indeed to our bodily sympathies, but very similar in some respect with regard to the character of the person concerned, and still more extraordinary in other respects. Indeed it seems
most allied to the supernatural, and to the stories in Italian romance of fighting giants, who pull their own heads on again as they would a hat.

It is with great grief and concern then (to use the expressive climax customary on occasions of mourning) that we have to record a singular proceeding on the part of the dead body of Mr. Southey. It shews how unquietly he is disposed to lie in his tomb; and what care the mason should take when cutting his epitaph, lest the deceased should frighten him out of his wits by knocking on the other side of the stone, and telling him to beware how he omitted a syllable of his perfections.

Our readers remember the account of his death and funeral a week or two back. We had not then been apprised of a remarkable circumstance which took place in the interval, and which was published Saturday fortnight,—a day selected, it is said, by Murrain his bookseller, from certain unaccountable apprehensions lest the Sunday papers should be profane on the subject. We appeal to our readers whether we afford any ground for the man’s alarm.

But to the point.—Murrain’s back parlour was lighted up, it seems, with some large tapers from the chapel of the Escurial, and hung with black coats curiously turned inside out and painted with escutcheons of the different legitimate sovereigns.  In the middle of it, the corpse was lying in state; and Murrain, with the exception of one or two private friends, was left alone with it. Mr. Canning had departed to pay his respects to Lord Castlereagh. Mr. Croker had gone home to write an account for the Courier of the “admirable” behaviour of the body,—how tastefully it had disposed it’s limbs, and what vigour there was in it’s very impotence. Dr. Stothard, in a lamentably weak condition, had exclaimed he was “sick of the Times,” and been taken home to bed. Nobody knew what had taken Mr. Gifford away; only he was heard muttering as he went along something about “no patience,” and was seen to lame a few apple-women with some passing kicks. As to Mr. Coleridge, he was gone to bed, having been siting up all night consoling himself with brandy and water, proving at the same time that it was the only temperate drink, and that the undertakers (some of whom drank with him) were the only men besides himself and particular friends, who knew any thing about religion and politics. He begged pardon, we understand, for using a pun on an occasion so reverent and solemn, and said that he hoped the company would not think the less of his moral honesty, (though punning, in fact, had greater authority than some might be aware) “but, Gentlemen,” added he, “the undertakers are your only grave expounders.” To all these observations, as well as to those of the other mourners, Murrain invariably said, with all the pithy and quick indifference yet submission of a coffee-house waiter, “Yes, Sir;” and then addressing him with more familiarity, attempted to shew him how sincerely he lamented the loss of the deceased, having nobody left who could toss of a sheet with such regularity:—upon which Mr. Coleridge always grinned with great suavity, and resumed.

Well;—the public mourners having thus departed, and Murrain, during the silence of the others, having retired to a corner to do a bit of his ledger, all of a sudden there came through the street door a furious shower of pebbles at the room window, followed by a shout of the word “Renegado.” The voices seemed young,—like those of a school for instance. Murrain said “Yes, Sir,” as usual, and then turned pale. But he turned paler in a moment; for the dead body rose with great gravity, and coming majestically towards him, commenced a speech in these words:—

Mister William Smith,

“I know very well who it was, among others, that got the whole world hooting at me in this irreverent manner.  It was you, Mister William Smith; and let me tell you, Mister William Smith, that it is no longer to be borne. You accuse me of scandalous inconsistencies, and of having been a Renegado. I shall condescend to shew you that I, Robert Southey, Esq. Poet-Laureat and Ex-Jacobin, am nothing but consistency, and that you, Mister William Smith, are nothing but revilement and insult. In shewing you your inconsistencies, I shall prove the reverse in myself.” (Here Murrain being somewhat recovered, though still much agitated, said, “You, Sir,” as usual,—of which the eminent corpse too no notice, but proceeded:—)

“And first, for consistency the first.—Not only, Sir, did you make this accusation in Parliament, but it was “a premeditated thing;” for you “stowed” (it can’t be a vulgar word, since I use it) you “stowed,” Sir, “the Quarterly Review in one pocket, and Wat Tyler in the other;”—a very atrocious thing in a Member of Parliament! What, Sir, a Member of Parliament put books in his pocket! You may think, Mister William Smith, that I have been accustomed to put books in my pocket? I have, Sir; but not for the purpose, certainly not for the avowed purpose, of cutting them up. They used to be sent me down by the coach.” (“Yes, Sir.”)

“Consistency 2.—You say, in the second place, that I wrote the article in question in the Quarterly Review. How do you know that? “You may happen to be as much mistaken” in trusting to report for that matter, as I was when I took you for a man of candour. “You have no right to take for granted what you cannot possibly know.” It is I only who have a right to that sort of gratuitousness, and accordingly (though it is “not necessary” to do so) I denounce “Mr. Brougham” by name as a writer in the Edinburgh Review, and as “carrying the quarrels as well as practices of it into the House of Commons.” “I am as little answerable” for the review I may write in, as the review is for me; but it is evidently the reverse with him. “I hope here be truths.” (“Yes, Sir.”)

“Consistency 3.—The Quarterly Review, Mister William Smith, has no such “practises.” The Edinburgh names a man now and then, (which makes it very bitter) and never notices the Quarterly;—the Quarterly, on the other hand, is repeatedly noticing the Edinburgh, and names almost every body it dislikes, from Bonaparte down to Mister Bristol Hunt:—which, of course, does away the bitterness.” (Here Murrain ventured to look a little sceptical.)

“Consistency 4.—The question, as respects the Quarterly Review, is not who wrote the paper which happens to have excited Mr. William Smith’s displeasure, but whether the facts which are there stated are true, the quotations accurate, and the inferences just.” This is clearly not the case with your statement, Mister William Smith, your quotations, and your inferences; for you come forward in your own name,—which is very atrocious;—whereas what I write in the Quarterly Review is anonymous, which of course ought to be as great a shield against, as it is a weapon for, personalities. “I  hope these be truths.” (“Yes, Sir.”)

“Consistency 5.—Now, Sir, as to Wat Tyler. You know that that book was published without my consent,—that it must have been obtained from me by infamous means,—that I had long abjured it’s opinions,—“that the transaction bore upon it’s face every character of baseness and malignity.” And yet you quoted it,—and yet you contrasted it with the opinions I hold at present! Why, Sir, have you not lived long enough to know, that these sort of quotations and contrasts are never allowable but against such persons as Cobbett and Bonaparte! The Quarterly Review may contrast Cobbett’s past and present opinions, as much as it pleases; and we are all at liberty
to taunt Bonaparte with his old name of Brutus;—but us! us!—I shudder to think of the unfairness.” (Here
Murrain shrugged his shoulders.)

“Consistency 6.—Sir, I am ashamed for you. You may smile, but I repeat it:—I am ashamed for you, and really wish—I mean to say, think—that you would recall your charges if possible. As to myself, “I never felt either shame or contrition” for my opinions. It is for those who have adopted them, to feel it;—not for me, who have abandoned. Mark that. It is particularly incumbent on them too to feel so ashamed, if my writings had any influence in assisting the adoption; for I have now changed, and warned them off. Mark that also.” (Murrain almost jumped.)

“Consistency 7.—That book, Mister William Smith, was written when I was a boy, and a very excellent boy too. (I was also—see my Poems—a very pretty boy;—but let that rest.) The book is full of errors, I allow; but in me, such errors “bear no indication of an ungenerous spirit or of a malevolent heart.” It was written when such opinions exposed people “to personal danger,”—which in me was true boldness. It was written “in disregard of all worldly considerations,”—which in me was amiable and noble, not riotous desperation. It was written “when republicanism was confined to a very small number of the educated classes,”—which, together with my subsequent conduct, shewed my selectness of taste and eternal freedom from vulgarity.—Finally, Mister William, it was written, “when a spirit of antijacobinism was predominant, which I cannot characterize more truly than by saying, that it was as unjust and intolerant, though not quite as ferocious as the jacobinism of the present day.” This is manifest upon the bare mention of a few names. At that time, jacobinism, besides myself and friends, was confined to Danton, Marat, Robespierre, and a few other over-zealous people;—it denounced kings in the lump, particularly certain kings (see my friend Landor’s poem)—it preached open sedition, rebellion, and total changes;—wished to decapitate whole assemblies here, and actually did it in France;—all which shews that it acted from real zeal, though misguided;—but in the present day, there are scarcely any but contemptible half-jacobins, fellows forsooth, who tattle about their legal rights, mere anarchists in secret, skulking knaves from whom it is difficult to muster up a single desperado, and then only among the naked and the hungry. Are we, the old, well-educated, daring jacobins, who followed the opinions of the French Revolution “with ardour, wherever they led,” to be compared with constitutional dastards like these!” (Here Murrain, as the phrase is, was dumb-founded.)

“Consistency 8.—And yet, Sir, you accuse me of attributing “bad motives to men merely for holding now the same doctrines which I myself formerly professed;” and you add that I exhibit “the malignity and baseness of a renegado.”—(Here the departed orator became very red.)—Sir, I never attributed those motives to men merely for what you say:—I have attributed them also to men who never professed half of what I did, and I have called the Reformers, in a lump, “no better than house-breakers.”

“Consistency 9.—So, Sir, if you call me a Renegado, I refute the charge by saying that it is “false;” and I teach you how to be “coarse and insulting” another time, by letting you know that you are a “reviler,” a premeditated stower of books in your pocket, an accuser of the absent, an assaulter of the unprotected, “a gross and wanton insulter,” a “disgraceful speaker,” a “sober opponent of your country’s cause,” a “foul asperser,” a “slanderer,” a “retail” dealer to the “panders of malice and pioneers of rebellion,” a forgetter of “your Parliamentary character and of the decencies between man and man,” a “calumniator,” a—what shall I say—“a certain Mister William Smith!”

(Here Murrain began to feel a sort of lethargy, and put his hand to his head; upon which the didactic dust and ashes proceeded:—)

“Nay, Sir,” salve not the mark as you will, it is ineffable:—you must bear it with you to your grave.” (At this part of his speech the departed Christian, who as Mr. Coleridge says knows his duty too well to retaliate, looked quite delighted; and gradually becoming more so, exclaimed at last,) “And now, Sir, let me speak a little of myself!

At this announcement, by which it appears that the short memories of the witty accompany them to the grave, Murrain fairly dropped his head on the back of the chair, and began snoring: but the deceased Member of the Royal Spanish Academy took it only for a fainting fit accompanied with groans, and smilingly continued.

In consequence however of Murrain’s lethargy, and of a similar attack which seized the other mourners in spite of repeated pinches of snuff, this part of his speech has not properly transpired. But it can be gathered with certainty, that he talked a long while about his being right on every possible point in morals, politics, and religion,—that he made a sudden transition from his “retirement” to the “mail-coach,” and from his “books” to “spinning engines,” (at which latter, by the bye, one of the mourners laughed in his sleep): and that, after insisting it was the People and not the Government, the Reformers and not Croker and Castlereagh, who stood in need of reformation, he said, somewhat mysteriously, (Consistency 9,) that the said Government should not neglect it’s “duties,” especially “it’s first duty” of enlightening the “worse than heathen ignorance” of the poor, nor leave the brave defenders of their country unprovided for, nor suffer whole districts to lie waste while multitudes were famishing.” These were certainly odd evidences of a Government in no need of reform; but a caput mortuum may be allowed to wander a little. He also, in expressing his agreement in many things with that excellent person, Mr. Owen of Lanark, confessed notwithstanding, in a happy Latin phrase, that he differed “toto cœlo” from him in one main point,—which was (Consistency 10,)—that building the justice and happiness of society upon any other foundation than that of believing in the indispensibility of faith and the flames of eternal punishment, was building upon sand. As to the press, he said, with great agitation, that it “must be curbed, and kept curbed.”—that “if the laws were not at present effectual, they should be made so;”—and that he mentioned all this out of pure regard to liberty and equal dealing, though he knew “how grossly and impudently his meaning would be misrepresented;”—a fancy, in which we may venture to assure him, he will find himself mistaken. It must not be omitted also, that the ingenious body politic, who is not a jot more malicious now he is dead than when alive, took particular pains to impress on the perverted understanding of the imaginary Unitarian before him, the necessity of restoring the whole power of the Church Establishment; nor, what is very curious, that he ended one of his instructive paragraphs to Government (for he never quits his claim to be didactic to all about him) with a recommendation to remedy “the worst grievance which exists,”—namely, “the enormous expense, the chicanery, and the ruinous delays of the law.” We trust the Chancellor will take the hint from a quarter so solemn, and manage his re-considerations and injunctions better in future.

The conclusion of the speech luckily was heard by all present, for just as the deceased came to it, he hemmed two or three times with prodigious loudness, and thus wound up his peroration:—

“How far the name of Southey will be immortal, time
will decide; and I have no doubt, decide as he has done himself. I shall not perish, that’s certain:—I shall have lives of me “always prefixed to my works,” and “translated to literary histories, and to the biographical dictionaries, not only of this, but of all other countries.” It strikes me also that I shall be, in all accounts of eminent men, in indexes, catalogues, lists, references, quotations, extracts, choice flowers, and other reminiscences of infinite sorts, both here, hereafter, and every where. There it will be related, among other excellent traits, that I lived in the bosom of my family, (which of course nobody else does), and “in absolute retirement,” (which is a merit in me, though not in others). There it will be related also, that to all my writings I “breathed the same abhorrence of oppression and immorality (see my odes for and against despots), “the same spirit of devotion,” (see my song, joking about Death on the White Horse), and the same ardent wishes for the amelioration of mankind (see
Wat Tyler and the Quarterly Review). There, furthermore, it will be said, that the “only charge which malice could hang against him was,” not that I charge others with bad motives for thinking half of what I did myself, nor that I wrote all sorts of personal, intolerant, and arbitrary things under cover of the Quarterly Review,—but that I grew older as most people do, and altered my opinions as many (silly) people do not. Finally, there it will be said, that “in an age of personality, I abstained from satire,” with the small exception of the instances just mentioned; and that the “only occasion on which I condescended to reply” instead of attack anonymously, was when a certain Mister in Parliament—namely you, Mister William Smith—was base, mean, odious, foolish, peevish, egotistical, and atrocious enough, to attack me openly.”

So saying, to the great apparent satisfaction of himself, and relief of poor Murrain, the posthumous orator returned majestically to his bier, and adjusting his repose with a greater and more Cæsarian dignity than ever Liston did on a like occasion, gave one look around him of mixed triumph and contempt, and relapsed into his proper mortality.

Peace be to his shade.