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

VIII. Southey

§ 2. His Politics

It is impossible wholly to pass over that question of political tergiversation which plays a large part in Southey’s actual history, owing, partly, to the time at which he lived, and, partly to the rather unscrupulous ability of some of his enemies; but, partly, also, it must be confessed, to that rather unlucky touch of self-righteousness which was almost the only fault in his otherwise blameless character. The present writer has never seen the question of the character and duration of Southey’s political and religious unorthodoxy examined at length; and there is not room for such an examination here; but there are ample and final materials for it in his Letters. It was, undoubtedly, brought on by that “prince of the air,” a momentary epidemic of popular opinion, and by the common though not universal, opposition of clever boys to the powers that be; it was hardened by the unwise severity of William Vincent at Westminster; it was shaken so early as the execution of Marie-Antoinette and the downfall of the Girondists; and, by 1796, the patient had got to writing: “as for pigs, they are too like the multitude.” All was safe after that; though a few minor relapses follow for a short time. It may be allowed, even by the most sympathetic judgment, that Southey had not a political head; in fact, he admitted it himself when choosing his subjects for The Quarterly. His account of the matter in his famous reply to William Smith as to the resuscitation of Wat Tyler—one of the finest things of the kind, for matter and style, ever written—to the effect that he had “always had an ardent desire for the melioration of mankind,” but that “as he grew older his ideas as to the best means of that melioration changed,” is adequate, accurate and final. But the position which it indicates is, obviously, an incomplete one. As Coleridge had too much logic, Southey had too little; and he was always laying himself open to reproaches of actual inconsistency, which is important, as well as of retrospective inconsistency, which is futile. He never had been a thorough Jacobin, and he never became a thorough tory. To the end of his life, he had odd semi-socialist ideas; he never could see Pitt’s greatness, not because he detected that statesman’s real faults, but because the old “nervous impression” of dislike remained; and he never forgave the Anti-Jacobin attacks on himself. Not at any period of his life, for fear or favour, was it possible for Southey to acquiesce in what he did not think right; but what he thought right generally depended, not on any coherent theory, not on any sound historical observation, but on a congeries of personal likings, dislikings, experiences and impressions generally. This is really the conclusion of the whole matter respecting his politics, and no more need be said about it.

As is probably the case with all great readers and most copious writers, Southey began both processes, in more than the school sense of reading and writing, very early. He seems to have had almost congenital affinity for poetry and romance, and this, or mere accident, sent him, when almost a child, from Tasso (in translation, of course) to Ariosto, and from Ariosto to Spenser, in a way which the most critical pedagogue could not have improved. As a child, also, he filled quires, if not reams, with verse; and, though he had too much sense to preserve, or, at least, to print, any of these plusquam juvenilia, it is probable that we should not have found in them anything like the striking difference from his future work which is discernible in those of Milton, of Coleridge, of Shelley and of Tennyson. His early letters, too, contain specimens of the half-doggerel anapaests, which Anstey had made popular a generation earlier and which continued, for at least another, to be written with a familiar and current pen by persons of good, as well as of indifferent, wits. But (speaking under correction) the earliest thing that he regularly published and acknowledged—the Ode to Horror, dated 1791, when the author was seventeen—is a somewhat better than Della Cruscan (v. inf.) effort to follow Collins very far off. Some other pieces (of the same kind, mostly, but including a terribly flat monodrama on, of all subjects, Sappho) date from the next year or two; and, then, we come to the notorious Wat Tyler, “written in three days at Oxford” during the year 1794, and surreptitiously and invidiously published from a stolen copy twenty-three years later. Southey failed in recourse to the law owing, perhaps, to one of the most extraordinary “quillets” of a legal mind ever recorded. Therefore he himself included it in his works and very sensibly made not the slightest correction, merely explaining the date and circumstances of its composition.