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The Study Of Literature
English Literature Of The 19th Century:
 First Or Pre-victorian Period--1800-1837

 Walter Scott

 Lord Byron

 Thomas Moore

 Percy Bysshe Shelley

 John Keats

 Leigh Hunt

 William Wordsworth

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 Robert Southey

 Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century

Robert Southey

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Southey in his youth seemed likely to be as radical in opposition to English ways as Byron, yet he soon settled down to steady work as a Quarterly Reviewer, an unflinching supporter of Church and State. In 1813 he was made poet laureate, and held the position for thirty years. His Oriental poems, as elaborate but not as gorgeous as Moore's "Lalla Rookh," have fallen into a more profound oblivion. As a poet he is remembered by a few short pieces; as a prose-writer, by his biographies of Nelson and Wesley, and by the whimsical rambling work, "The Doctor," which was an improvement in decency, though not in lively interest, on its model, Sterne's "Tristram Shandy."

Robert Southey was born at Bristol in 1774, and went to Balliol College, Oxford, but left without taking a degree. Infatuated with the wildest revolutionary doctrines, he published, in 1794, the drama of "Wat Tyler," and, with the aid of Coleridge, another on "The Fall of Robespierre." The Jacobinical poets became engaged to sisters, named Fricker, and also formed a Utopian scheme, learnedly called Pantisocracy. It was their dream to found a model community on the banks of the Susquehanna, a river of which they knew little except its romantic name. Here the golden age should be renewed in a Platonic republic from which vice and selfishness would forever be excluded. But alas! for want of the necessary money the beautiful vision was never realized.

Southey married Edith Fricker in 1795, yet went immediately alone to Lisbon, where his uncle was a British chaplain. This visit led to his thorough study of Spanish and Portuguese history and literature, which proved of service in later years. His epic "Joan of Arc" (1796) showed that change of scene had not yet altered his republicanism, but the need of steady employment sobered his fancies. He had nothing to do with Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads," but cherished poetic fancies of his own. In 1804 he settled at Greta Hall, near Keswick, in the Lake country, and thenceforward led a laborious literary life, assisted by the generosity of his friends, yet grinding away on topics of the time for daily bread. When Coleridge deserted his family, Southey took up the additional burden. He had now come to hate and detest Napoleon as a tyrant, and sustained the Tory government of England in its repressive policy. His most ambitious undertaking was to illustrate the mythologies of the world in a series of poems. "Thalaba the Destroyer," "the wild and wondrous song," is founded on Arabian traditions, and celebrates the victory of faith over the powers of evil. It was written in irregular verse without rhyme, and, in spite of some beautiful passages, was received with little favor. "The Curse of Kehama" was founded on the Hindoo mythology, whose extravagant fables and horrors overtaxed the powers of the poet and his readers. In it he admitted rhyme, but he had less expectation of success as the theme was beyond the range of human sympathies.

In his next epic, "Madoc," Southey made use of Welsh traditions in regard to an early discovery of America. It was the least successful of his long poems, while the most popular was "Roderick," the tragic story of the last Gothic King of Spain. For the Christian King's sin his people were defeated by the Moors, but Roderick, escaping, though supposed to be killed, became a hermit. Called by a vision to redeem his people, he wandered through the country in the garb of a priest, and rallied his friends to a new conflict with the Moors. In the battle he was recognized by his war-cry, but after the victory he disappeared. Centuries later a humble tomb with his name was discovered in a hermitage.

All of these poems required an immense amount, of reading in order to gather the material and proper surroundings. In fact, Southey's writing, both in prose and verse, was based on the most painstaking investigation, and his wildest fancies wear a matter-of-fact shape. His library contained 14,000 volumes, gathered for use and systematically read, as his "Commonplace Book" and "Omniana" testify. Yet as a poet, though he won high praise, he never was popular; he received far less for his toilsome works than Moore and men of less note for airy fancies. Finding that his poetry became less salable, he confined himself to prose, though even in this he did not find time to accomplish the great works which he had planned. His domestic life had its tragedies; his only son and prettiest daughter died, and his wife was insane for two years before her death in 1837. Two years later the bereaved poet married Caroline Bowles, herself a poet, but after a short period of comfort, his brain gave way, owing to his excessive work. He sank into imbecility and died in March, 1843.

Southey had resolutely clung to hope of fame as a poet, but he was doomed to disappointment. Though early classed with Wordsworth as forming the Lake school of poetry, he justly protested against this mistake of the "Edinburgh Review." Whatever lawlessness was manifested in Southey's poems, it was not due to Words-worth's theory of poetic diction. In spite of his quiet, retired life, Southey retained his vehement partisan spirit after he had changed his party. His ode written during the negotiations with Napoleon in January, 1814, is one of the strongest denunciations of the Emperor. His lively burlesque of "The March to Moscow" bears witness to the same feeling. His most deplorable piece is the "Vision of Judgment," in which, as poet laureate, he depicted the entrance of George III into Heaven. In the preface he attacked what he called "The Satanic School," and Byron, who had already become a personal enemy of the laureate, took revenge in a severe satire on this absurd deification of the unfortunate English sovereign. But Southey must always be remembered with respect for his unflagging industry, his varied learning, his excellent prose style, his genuine humor, and a few cherished poems.

Besides the men of genius who have already been *described as giving new character to the first third of the Nineteenth Century, there were several contemporaries of fair repute and respectable performance. The eldest of these, who lived to the age of ninety-two, was Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) ), a Whig banker. His best remembered works are "the Pleasures of Memory" (1792) and "Italy" (1822). The former is in rhymed couplets, the latter in blank verse, but both belong in spirit to the Eighteenth Century. They are the efforts of a dilettante rather than the composition of a true poet. Rogers, by his wealth, was able to be a patron of literature and a connoisseur in art. His life was devoted to the pleasures of society; his hospitality was enjoyed by all the celebrities of the time; his conversation was highly esteemed; though his wit was sharp, his actions were charitable.

"The Pleasures of Hope," which gave early fame to Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), was suggested by Rogers' poem, but was more directly an imitation of Goldsmith's "Traveller." In it Campbell, then but twenty-one, made a poetical survey of Europe. His spirited ballads on events of the time, "Hohenlinden" (1799), "Ye Mariners of England" (1800), and "The Battle of the Baltic" (1809), have retained popularity, when his longer poems have lost it. Campbell, having settled in London, was constantly and remuneratively employed as miscellaneous writer, editor of biographical and critical works, and collections of poetry. His "Gertrude of Wyoming" (18o9) is a tragic story in the Spenserian stanza, but the scene is laid in Pennsylvania, with which the author had no direct acquaintance. It is a conventional English tale with foreign locality, and melodramatic accessories. Campbell added to his fame by "Lochiel's Warning" and "The Exile of Erin," but not by his longer narrative poems. In 1830 he was made editor of Colburn's "New Monthly Magazine." He died in 1844.

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