Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. The Life of Nelson

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VIII. Southey

§ 11. The Life of Nelson

It is not easy to say anything new about The Life of Nelson; in fact, it would be impossible to do so without availing oneself of mere rhetoric or mere paradox epigram, both of which are absolutely foreign to the book itself. The Life established itself if not immediately, very soon, as, perhaps, the best short biography of a plain and straightforward kind in the English language; it has held that position almost unchallenged till a very recent period; and it may be said, without offence, that the charges since brought against it have certainly not weakened, if they have not even positively strengthened, its position. For, all that anyone has been able to make good against Southey is that he was not in possession of all the documents on the subject; that he was not a professional seaman or strategist; and that, on some disputed points of fact or opinion, it is possible to hold views different from his. What has not been shown and, it may be said without fear, cannot be shown, is that the most abundant technical knowledge of naval, or the most recondite study of military, affairs could have bettered such a book as this; that the points of disputed opinion cannot possibly be accepted as Southey accepts them; or that material advantage could have been obtained for such a book as this from the documents that could not be consulted. The specification of it might be put, after Aristotelian fashion, thus: “A short, clear, well written narrative displaying Nelson’s acts and showing forth his character, with all necessary accuracy of fact, with sympathy not too partial or indiscriminate, in such a manner as to make the thing for ever a record of heroism and patriotism in the past, and a stimulus to them in the future.” The great majority of competent judges, some of them by no means inclining to Southey’s way of thought in political or other senses, has unhesitatingly declared the material part of this specification to be amply achieved. As for the formal or literary part, there never has been even one such judgment which has failed to pronounce The Life of Nelson such a model of the more modern “middle style,” with capacities of rising to something grander, as hardly exists elsewhere. The scale saved the writer from his own fatal fancy for quartos, and from the opportunities of prolixity and divagation which quartos bring with them; his own patriotism, in which he was the equal of Chatham or of Nelson himself, gave the necessary inspiration; his unwearied industry made him master of details even to the extent of avoiding any serious technical blunders; and those quaint flashes of the old Jacobinism which have been noticed occur just often enough to prevent the book from having the air of a mere partisan pamphlet. These things, with Southey’s own sauce of style, were enough to give us a somewhat larger and more important Agricola; and we have it here.

From the time of the publication of Nelson, which was also that of Southey’s laureation, he had thirty years of life allowed him, and at least five-and-twenty of life in full possession of his faculties. During the whole of this last-named period, he worked in the portentous fashion more than once described in his letters, practically taking up the whole of his time from waking to sleeping, except that allotted to meals (but often encroached upon) and to a little exercise. This work was by no means, as it has been absurdly described, “compiling and translating from the Spanish,” but its results cannot be very fully commented on here. His Quarterly reviewing was, fortunately (for it provided his main income), continuous: and, after a time, was very well paid, the regular “ten guineas a sheet” passing into comfortable lump sums of fifties and hundreds. But he never fully reconciled himself to it; and there were unpleasant misunderstandings about the editorship in the interregnum between Gifford’s and Lockhart’s. The taskwork of the laureateship (of which, in accepting it, he had thought himself relieved, but which continued for, at any rate, some years) he hated still more, but discharged with almost too great conscientiousness, the chief results being the unluckily named Lay of the Laureate on princess Charlotte’s wedding, and the unluckily composed Vision of Judgment on George III’s death. As to the latter, it is enough to caution the unwary against concluding from the undoubted cleverness of Byron’s parody-attack, that Southey’s original is worthless. The English hexameters may be a mistake, but they are about the best of their special pattern of that probably hopeless form; and the substance, though displaying, occasionally, the want of tact which now and then beset the author, is, sometimes, very far from contemptible. But the occasions when Pegasus has shown his true form in official harness are, as is too well known, of the rarest; and Southey’s work does not furnish one of the exceptions.