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

VIII. Southey

§ 17. Southey and Dryden

To those who have been able to acquire something of what has been called “a horizontal view” of literature—a thing even better, perhaps, than the more famous “Pisgah sight,” inasmuch as the slightly deceptive perspective of distance is removed, and the things pass in procession or panorama before the eye—there are, with, of course, some striking differences, more striking resemblances in the literary character and the literary fates of Southey and Dryden. The comparison may, at first sight, be exclaimed against, and some of its most obvious features—such as the charges of tergiversation brought against both—are not worth dwelling on. But there are others which will come out and remain out, all the more clearly the longer they are studied. The polyhistoric or professional man-of-letters character of both, though equally obvious, is not equally trivial. Both had a singularly interchangeable command of the two harmonies of verse and prose; and, in the case of no third writer is it so difficult to attach any “ticket” to the peculiar qualities which have placed the prose style of each among the most perfect in the plain kind that is known to English. Their verse, when compared with that of the greater poets of their own time—Milton in the one case, half a dozen from Coleridge to Keats in the other—has been accused, and can hardly be cleared, of a certain want of poetical quintessence. Dryden, indeed, was as much Southey’s superior intellectually as, perhaps, he was morally his inferior: and, neither as poet nor as prose writer, has the later of the pair any single productions to put forward as rivals to An Essay of Dramatick Poesie, All for Love, the great satires, the best parts of the Prefaces, and the best Fables. He will, therefore, perhaps, never recover, as Dryden, to a great extent, has recovered, from the neglect which lay upon him from about 1830 to about 1880. In regard to Southey, this attitude was begun, not by Byron or Hazlitt or his other contemporary detractors—who really held him very high as a writer, though they might dislike him in other ways—but by the more extreme romantics of a younger generation, and by persons like Emerson. That it will be wholly removed, or removed to the same extent as the neglect of Dryden has been, would, perhaps, be too much to expect. But there is still much that should and can be done in the way of altering or lessening it; and a sign or two of willingness to help in the work, has, perhaps, recently been noticeable.


It has been thought proper to group, round or under Southey, like gunboats under the wings of a “mother” frigate, certain lesser poets of the mid- and later eighteenth century, notice of whom may continue that given to others of their kidney in previous volumes. It would, indeed, be possible, without very extravagant fancifulness, or wire-drawing, to make out more than an accidental or arbitrary connection between him and at least some of them. For, beyond all doubt, he was much indebted to Anstey for patterns of light anapaestic verse, and more so to Sayers for an example of rimelessness. Long before he knew Coleridge, he, also, felt that curious influence of Bowles’s Sonnets which supplies one main historical vindication and reason for existence to minor poetry. Hayley was his friend and Merry his acquaintance. His connection with Hanbury Williams is, indeed, a sort of “back-handed” one; for he tells us that he had refused, twenty years before its actual appearance, to edit the existing collection of Williams’s Poems, disapproving of their contents; and this disapproval would certainly have extended, perhaps in a stronger form, to Hall Stevenson. But these are points which need no labouring. Moreover, which is strictly to the purpose, he was himself all his life distinguished by a catholic and kindly taste which he showed not only to minorities of his own time from Kirke White downwards, but in collecting three agreeable volumes, of seventeenth and eighteenth century writers to follow Ellis’s Specimens. These volumes may still, in no unpleasant fashion, revive half-forgotten memories of Amhurst and Boyse and Croxall, of Fawkes and Woty and William Thompson, while they may suggest once more, if, perhaps, in vain, the removal of more absolute forgetfulness if not original ignorance, in the cases of Constantia Grierson and Mary Leapor, of Moses Mendez and Samuel Bellamy.

For such as these last, however, only a chronicle planned on the scale of l’Histoire Littéraire de la France and destined to be finished, if ever, in a millennium, could well find room. We may notice here Anstey, Hanbury Williams and Hall Stevenson among writers distinclty earlier than Southey; Darwin, Hayley, the Della Cruscans, Bowles, Sayers and one or two more among his actual contemporaries, older and younger.