Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. Commonplace Books

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

VIII. Southey

§ 9. Commonplace Books

The two productions of a lighter character mentioned above deserve a place on that shelf or in that case of books for occasional reading with which the wise man should always provide himself. Southey’s earlier Letters from Spain and Portugal were written before he had thoroughly mastered his own inimitable style: but those, two years later, “from England,” assigned to an imaginary young Spaniard Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, are much better. They belong to a well-known class, and, no doubt, cannot compete with the work of such masters in that class as Montesquieu or Goldsmith. But they contain, perhaps, a more accurate picture of English ways in the very beginning of the nineteenth century than exists anywhere else, as well as some curiosities, such as the accounts of Brothers and Joanna Southcott. Omniana has interest of a different kind or kinds. It is not (as it has been sometimes pronounced to be) a mere commonplace-book: it is a commonplace-book made original. The enormous store of reading which supplied the posthumous Commonplace Books of the author, and which was more substantively utilised in The Doctor, does, indeed, supply the texts; but, for the most part, if not always, these are retold or, at least, commented on in that author’s own words. An additional piquancy undoubtedly lies in the fact that Coleridge undertook to be, and, to a small extent, was, a contributor; though, as usual, he defaulted save to that small extent. To anyone who reads the book for a first time, or even for a second or a third, at an interval long enough to allow him to forget the exact whereabouts or subjects of Coleridge’s contributions, it is no small amusement to stumble on the Estesian “proofs.” No prose can be pleasanter to read or more suitable to its wide range of subjects than Southey’s; but, when you come to such a sentence as “A bull consists in a mental juxtaposition of incongruous ideas with the sensation but without the sense of connection” you know that another than Southey has been there.