Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 16. Southey’s Letters

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

VIII. Southey

§ 16. Southey’s Letters

To understand, not merely this his last book, but Southey himself, it is expedient and almost necessary that the immense mass of his letters (even as it is, but partially published) should be perused; and any reader who is not daunted by mere bulk may be assured of agreeable, as well as profitable, reading. Neither his son’s collection, in six volumes, nor his son-in-law’s, in four, (somewhat more fully and freely given) is very judiciously edited, and there is, in the latter especially, considerable duplication; but those to his second wife were more fortunate, and, from the three collections, with very little trouble, the man, and a very different man from some conceptions of him, becomes cl ar. Coleridge’s ingeniously epigrammatic and rather ill-naturedly humble remark “I think too much to be a poet: he [Southey] too little to be a great poet” has a certain truth, though one might retort that thinking too much neither prevented The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan or Christabel from being great poetry nor, indeed, makes any particular appearance in them. Except in the moral line, Southey was not a philosopher: but neither was he the commonplace Philistine that he is often thought to have been. Like some other men, he obtained the desires of his heart—family life and a life of letters—only to find that the gods seldom fail to condition their gifts, if not exactly with curses, with taxes and fees like those over which he groaned in reference to his earthly pensions. There are evidences in his letters not merely of deep sentiment but even of a tendency to imaginative speculation; but neither was “in the day’s work,” and so he choked the former down with stoicism, the second with common sense. In such an unbroken debauch of labour as that to which he subjected himself, it is marvellous that he should have done such things as he did. And most marvellous of all is his style, which—not, as has been said, quite attained at first—was very soon reached, and which, in all but fifty years of incessant and exorbitant practice, never became slipshod or threadbare or wanting in vitality.

Therefore, whatever may be his shortcomings, or, to put it more exactly, his want of supremacy, it must be a strangely limited history of English literature in which a high position is not allowed to Southey. For, in the first place, as must be once more repeated, he has actual supremacy in one particular department and period of English prose style. It is difficult to imagine any future time, at which his best and most characteristic, though least mannered, achievements in this way can ever become obsolete—precisely because of their lack of mannerism. And this must be credited to him as a pure gift of individual genius, though he stands in the race and lineage of a perhaps still greater writer of his own class, as to whom more presently. For this extraordinary combination of clearness and ease will not come by observation, or even by reading the fourteen thousand books which constituted Southey’s library. Such a polyhistor, for variety, for excellence of matter and for excellence of form, it may be doubted whether any other language possesses.

If not quite such high praise can be given to his verse, it is not in regard to form that he fails. On the contrary, there are strong reasons for assigning to him the first clear perception of the secret of that prosodic language which almost everybody was to practise in Southey’s own time and ever since. Whether, in actual date, his early ballads preceded The Ancient Mariner and the first part of Christabel in the use of substitution, it may be difficult to decide absolutely; though, even here, the precedence seems to be his. But, what is absolutely certain is that his formulation of the principle in a letter to Wynn is twenty years earlier in time than Coleridge’s in the preface to the published Christabel and very much more accurate in statement. There are many other references to res metrica in his work, and it is a curious addition to the losses which the subject suffered by the non-completion of Jonson’s and Dryden’s promised treatises, that Guest’s English Rhythms, which was actually sent to him for review, reached him too late for the treatment which he, also, designed. And, in general criticism, though his estimate of individual work was sometimes (not often) coloured by prejudice, he was very often extraordinarily original and sound. For a special instance, his singling out of Blake’s “Mad Song” may serve; for a general, the fact that, as early as 1801, he called attention to the fact that

  • there exists no tale of romance that does not betray gross and unpardonable ignorance of the habits of feeling and thought prevalent at the time and in the scene,
  • thereby hitting the very blot which spoils nearly all the novel-writing of the time, and which was first avoided by Scott, much later.