The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 5. Southey
Although Southey never reached any point near the heights of Coleridge in poetical practice; although, except in parts of Thalaba, Kehama and a few shorter poems, his actual prosodic touch is somewhat blunt; there are very few poets who have shown so direct a knowledge of the root of the matter in theory, and still fewer technical prosodists who have been able to put their theories into anything like such poetic practice. The possible cento of remarks from his letters and works has been referred to above. It was he who, first of all English poets, gave precision to Shenstone’s vague hankerings after “the dactyl”; and indicated a more scientific system than Coleridge’s rough and ready indication of accents as all that mattered, by remarking to Wynn, in the letter above referred to, that “two syllables may be counted as one: they take up only the time [that is, the technical time] of one,” and justifying his principles and practice not merely from the balladists but from Milton. It is quite clear that he had arrived at the secret simply through his well-known early, extensive and accurate reading of English poetry.
So, again, whatever may be thought of his rimeless verse, and of his classical verse, they are, at any rate, testimonies of the strongest kind to his prosodic “curiosity,” in the Johnsonian and good sense. And there is to be added to his credit, in the case of each, that he avoided the great prosodic danger of irregular rimelessness (the constant drop into blank verse), and that, if he did not cure, he saw, the diseases of the English hexameter. His blank verse is not, as a rule, masterly, and he was much too fond of writing it; but, if it never, at its best, approaches anything like the best of Wordsworth’s, it never, at its worst, comes near the flatness of Wordsworth’s average. And—once more specially to his credit from the present point of view—he knew the dangers that he dared. He perceived, as none of its numerous enemies in the eighteenth century had perceived, and as too few of its less numerous friends had seemed to perceive, that instead of being an easier, blank verse is, in fact, a much more difficult, metrical vehicle than rime, whether in couplet or stanza; and he had the combined insight and frankness to point out that it had the special drawback of setting the weakest parts of the composition in the clearest lights. The loss of his intended review of Guest, which, by reason of his interest in, and knowledge of, the subject, would, probably, have extended to the length of a long pamphlet or short book, may almost be set beside those other losses of the prosodic works of Jonson and Dryden which have been noticed formerly.