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ROBERT SOUTHEY, a linen draper's son, was born in Wine Street, Bristol, on the 12th of August 1774. After passing through various local seminaries, he went in 1788, at the expense of his uncle, the Reverend Herbert Hill, to the celebrated school of Westminster. From that school he was expelled four years afterwards, owing to the share he had taken in an article against flogging, which appeared in a magazine conducted by the senior boys. Entering Balliol College, Oxford, in 1792, he spent a couple of years in general reading and industrious verse-making, carrying from the University, according to his own account, a knowledge of but two things as the fruit of his imperfect undergraduate coursehow to row and how to swim.
At Oxford he met Coleridge, and these “birds of a feather," both smitten by the widening swell of the French Revolution, rank Republicans in political creed, and Unitarians in religious profession, formed, in conjunction with others, the wild American scheme spoken of in the sketch of Coleridge. Southey, Coleridge, and their friend Lovell, another of the Pantisocrats, became the husbands of three sisters of Bristol ; all of whom were gathered in a while under Southey's roof, for Lovell soon died, and Coleridge in his vast dreamings often forgot the real duty of supporting his wife and children.
Already Southey's pen had been busily at work. At college he had composed an epic poem, Joan of Arc, for which that kindly book
seller of Bristol, Cottle, now gave the young husband fifty guineas. A volume of poems, written in conjunction with Lovell under the names of Bion and Moschus, had previously appeared; and a wild, revolutionary piece, Wat Tyler, had been written in a fit of republicanism. The last-named work was surreptitiously published many years afterwards by a bookseller, who wanted to annoy the Laureate, then a celebrated man.
Between his two visits (1795 and 1800) to Lisbon, where his uncle was chaplain of the British Factory, he studied law at Gray's Inn, advancing, to use his own expression, "with sufficient rapidity in Blackstone and Madoc.” The latter was an epic poem. This divided love could not last, and so Blackstone was at last given up, while Madoc advanced to completion. Before settling down to these temporary and uncongenial studies, he had published Letters from Spain and Portugal, the offspring of his first visit to the Peninsula.
In 1801 appeared the first of a series of great poems, intended to illustrate those various systems of mythology, which are so rich in poetic ore. Although its sale was slow, this work did much to raise the author's literary fame. Called Thalaba, the Destroyer, it depicts, in blank-verse of very irregular length but of great music, the perils and ultimate triumph of an Arabian hero, who fights with and conquers the powers of Evil. A splendid moonlight shining on the Eastern sands, with two figures—a sad mother and a weeping boy-wandering in the pale radiance, is the opening picture of a poem which abounds in brilliant painting. For the copyright of this work, which was finished in Portugal, Southey received a hundred guineas.
After one more effort towards a permanent settlement in some recognised position—the acceptance of a private secretaryship to the Irish Chancellor of Exchequer, worth £350 a year, which
he kept for only six months—he became a literary man 1804 by profession, and in 1804 fixed his residence on the
banks of the Greta near Keswick, in the heart of the
Lake country. Coleridge was already there, settled for so long a time as a being ever on the wing could settle; and
SOUTHEY'S HARD WORK.
Wordsworth lived about fourteen miles off, at Mount Rydal, near Ambleside.
Already his incessant industry had begun, but it now deepened into a life-long habit, until the busy brain wore itself out, and the workman could but wander without purpose and without power among the books, which he had gathered with patient love around the walls of his writing-room. Few events of any note, beyond the publication of his various works, marked the life of this busy author. In a letter to a friend he thus describes a day, and most of his days were similarly spent :
"Three pages of history of Portugal) after breakfast (equivalent to five in small quarto printing); then to transcribe and copy for the press, or to make any selections and biographies (for “Specimens of the British Poets”), or what else suits my humour till dinner-time. From dinner-time till tea I read, write letters, see the newspaper, and very often indulge in a siesta. After tea I go to poetry (he was now writing the “ Curse of Kehama”), and correct and re-write and copy till I am tired ; and then turn to anything else till supper. And this is my
life.” No wonder that a friend should say in deep astonishment, on hearing of such incessant toil, “But, Southey, tell me, when do you
think?" We postpone for a little a notice of his various works. When Pye died in 1813, Southey received the Laurel which Scott had just declined. In 1821 Oxford conferred on him the degree of LL.D. A pension of £300 a year was granted to him in 1835 by Sir Robert Peel, who had already offered him a baronetcy. His first wife having died in 1837, he contracted a second marriage two years later with the poetess, Caroline Bowles, who was then an elderly lady of fifty-two, and whose four years of married life were given to the tendance of the poor Laureate, already, like the elm-tree pointed to by Swift—himself the saddest example of so terrible an end—beginning to die at the top. During the last three years of Southey's life his over-wrought mind was a total blank. He died at Greta on the 21st of March 1843. The poetry of Southey, though not of the very highest order,
displays undoubted genius. His ambition as a poet was great; and few could have made more of the unmanageable themeshe selected. Madoc, a Welshman's supposed discovery and conquest of Mexico (1805); The Curse of Kehama, a tale of the Hindoo mythology (1810); and Roderick, Last of the Goths, a blank-verse epic on early Spanish history (1814), are his principal poems, besides those already named. Among many others we may mention The Vision of Judgment, which provoked Byron's terribly sarcastic echo; and his latest efforts in verse, All for Love, and The Pilgrim of Compostella. His Lakist tendencies can best be observed in his minor poems and ballads, of which Lord William, Mary the Maid of the Inn, and The Old Woman of Berkeley are well-known specimens.
“ The Curse of Kehama” is his finest poem. In verse of most irregular music, but completely suited to his fantastic theme, he leads us to the terrestrial paradise, —to the realms below the sea, -to the heaven of heavens, and, in a sublime passage, through adamantine rock, lit with a furnace glow, into Padalon, the Indian Hades. We follow the strange career of Kehama, a Hindoo rajah, who'by penance and self-inflicted torture raises himself to a level with Brahma and Vishnu; we suffer with the poor mortal, who is burdened with the spell of a terrible curse laid on him by the enchanter, and we rejoice in his final deliverance and restoration to his family. Various Hindoo gods, a ghost, a benevolent spirit, and a woman, who receives immortality at the end, are among the dramatis personce.
Scenery and costume, situations and sentiments, are alike in keeping with the Oriental nature of the work. But, for all its splendour and all its correctness as a work of art, it is so far removed from the world in which our sympathies lie, that few can fully appreciate this noble poem, and perhaps none can return to it with never-wearied love, as to a play of Shakspere or a novel by Scott.
Southey was a remarkable writer of English prose. His Life of Nelson (1813) is a model of its kind. Clear, polished, and thoroughly unstrained, a language flowed from his practised pen which few English writers have surpassed. A History of Brazil
SOUTHEY'S PROSE WORKS.
(1st vol. 1810); Lives of John Wesley, Chatterton, Kirke White, and Cowper; a History of the Peninsular War (1st vol. 1823); Colloquies on Society (1829), a strange and not over-wise book, giving an account of conversations between Montesinos (Southey himself) and the ghost of Sir Thomas More, who visits him at Keswick; Lives of the British Admirals for Lardner's “Cyclopædia” (1833); and The Doctor (1834), stand out prominently amid a host of articles for the Quarterly, and occasional papers on almost every subject, which filled up the idle hours of this most indefatigable author. Like Johnson he was living from “ hand to mouth,” until a pension placed him above the fear of want; but he could not then give up the habits of incessant study and literary toil, which had grown to be his second nature. He was never so happy as when he sat amid his books, pen in hand, adding newly-written sheets to the pile of manuscript already lying in his copy-drawer.
A VOYAGE THROUGH THE SKY.
(FROM " KELAMA.”)
Then in the ship of heaven Ereenia laid
The waking, wondering maid ;
On either side, in wavy tide,
Around the living bark enamoured play,
That bark, in shape, was like the furrowed shell
Its hue? -Go watch the last green liglit
The sail, from end to end displayed,